A Mother’s Tale

A Mother’s Tale
Copyright Karen Hopkins

I had a visitor last night. An angel named Gavriel, (Gabriel). I’ve always trusted in G-d’s mercies. I ‘ve always believed G-d hears and answers my prayers. I believed He has a purpose for me, but this? This was beyond anything I imagined, beyond anything ever felt or known. I can hardly speak; I whisper these words even to myself.
“G-d has chosen me to be the mother of HaMashiach, our messiah.” I need time to understand what is occuring. There is no one I can talk to about this. Who could comprehend the things I have seen and heard? Who would listen? What lies ahead?
I have decided to go away for awhile. I am not ready to talk to my parents, or to Yosef, (Joseph). Maybe my cousin Elisheva (Elizabeth) will let me visit for a time. She is much older than I. I think she’s older than my mother, but she is a woman of understanding. When I think of sharing this news, she’s the one person I know I can talk to.

Elisheva (Elizabeth) met me on the road before I’d gotten to her house. And she knew immediately! What a relief. We stood and cried together. What joy to be able to talk with her about everything that has happened; to ask advice, to plan for what’s coming. And Elisheva (Elizabeth) had a surprise of her own. She’s expecting. And her baby is an unexpected blessing!

Three months have passed. The time here with Elisheva and Z’karyah (Zechariah) has been heavenly. When Elisheva (Elizabeth) and I work together; time flies by. Z’kharyah (Zechariah) reads the words of the Torah and of the prophets with such understanding; there is so much we need to know. I have many things to do, many things to learn. But Elisheva’s (Elizabeth’s) baby is coming soon and it is time for me to return home. I have my own preparations to make. I wonder what Yosef (Joseph) will say. I hope he can understand.

When Yosef (Joseph) saw me the smile froze on his face. I’m not even halfway through this pregnancy, but before I could say a word he turned and walked away. I called after him,
“Pray about this Yosef; (Joseph) it is not as it appears.”
What did I expect? How else could he react?
My mother accepted all I told her, but she treats me as if I’m made of glass. How I wish these people I love could have Elisheva’s (Elizabeth’s) discernment. But if this is what being chosen means, so be it. If only they could share the joy I feel, instead of passing their confusion into my heart.

Yosef (Joseph) came to the house today and asked me to go walking with him. He has changed. His face radiated happiness. He told me of the struggles he’d had, that he had planned to have me put away. And then as he prayed an angel came to him explaining that this child is the son of G-d. As his shame and doubt fell away; Yosef (Joseph) was filled with joy. We are to be married immediately. I thank G-d for this good man who will stand with me through the days to come.
I notice the other women looking and whispering when I go to draw water. I should have expected as much. All they know is that Yosef and I married suddenly and that I am now very pronounced with child. Is there anything I could say that would make a difference? We know the truth, and G-d knows, so I smile and nod as if I don’t see the stares or hear the gossip. Rachel was so bold as to come up to me and say,
“I knew it. As soon as you and Yosef (Joseph) wed, I knew why.” She leered at me, but I smiled and looked at my belly before I replied,
“Every baby is a blessing, Rachel. Is it not so? And this baby is a very special blessing.” It was all I could say.

There is to be a census taken. Yosef (Joseph) and I are both of the House of David and we must travel to Beit-Lechem (Bethlehem) and register. I am very close to my time. Yosef suggested that I stay behind; the trip might be difficult for me and the baby, but I felt that I should go. We read the words of Mikha the prophet together last night,
But you, Beit-Lechem near Efrat,
so small among the clans of Y’hudah,
out of you will come forth to me
the future ruler of Isra’el,
whose origins are far in the past,
back in ancient times.” (Mikha 5:2)

Yosef (Joseph) said Mikha was talking about my son, and that he should be born in
Beit-Lechem, (Bethlehem). We agreed to sojourn together; we prepared for this baby to be born in Beit-Lechem, in the city of David. My time is drawing near.  I will be a mother soon. What a responsibility G-d has given me. I pray daily for strength and guidance. And Yosef is one of the answers to my prayers. I wonder if our people will remember the birth of my son as we now remember the birth of David.

Oh, little Beit-Lechem, (Bethlehem), you will be twice blessed!

I am so tired. We must have walked thirty leagues or more, but we’re finally in Beit-Lechem, (Bethlehem). The city is packed of course, and we don’t have enough money to rent a house or even a room—as if there were any available. We don’t know anyone here. We have walked from one end of town to the other. Yosef (Joseph) is talking to the owner of a traveler’s inn. It seems pretty rough. The owner is pointing to the stable in the central courtyard and Yosef (Joseph) is shaking his head. My back aches and I am tired. I need to rest even if it is on the hay beside the animals.

Finally, we are in a stable, a cave, out behind the inn. The owner took pity on us. I’m glad the animals are here. They provide some warmth. What a night this has been. The limestone walls seem to glow. And why wouldn’t they on this night of all nights?
I knew my labor was beginning the moment I sat down, and I really wished my mother were here to advise me, to hold my hand and tell me I would get through it. But very soon I quit wishing for what could not be and concentrated on what was happening. Yosef did his best to help me. He has attended animal births. It isn’t quite the same, but the baby came, and I can’t stop smiling. I have a son, a tiny beautiful son!
“The son of G-d,” I whisper, and here he is in the flesh. We washed him and I wrapped him in the swaddling clothes I’d embroidered so carefully for this very moment. I never imagined his birth would be like this, in this place with only my husband in attendance. But now that he is here, his birth was perfect.
Yes, He is perfect. Perfect indeed. I never imagined I could feel such joy, such peace, such contentment. It seems as though the universe is alive tonight. Is it just me, or is there music in the heavens?
Time has passed. So much has happened. Yeshua is fifteen, our oldest son. Yosef (Joseph) passed away last winter. He whispered to me to rely on G-d. Perhaps Yosef (Joseph) now has His ear. Yosef’s health began to fail shortly after our trip to the temple in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) for the Passover, the year that Yeshua stayed behind and nearly scared us to death. It was a timely reminder; he is more than my son. I knew, but still I needed the reminder. He is learning, beginning to understand his calling, his mission if you will, in life. But at this point much of the carpentry work falls to him. All that he does he does in the name of his Father. Yosef (Joseph) taught him well. Oh, I miss Yosef. What adventures we had. I never could have imagined how life would unfold starting with Yeshua’s birth. I remember the shepherds who came to us that first night when all I wanted to do was sleep; Yeshua glowed in the reflected light off the limestone. We stayed on in Beit-Lechem (Bethlehem) during niddah, the forty-day purification period following childbirth. Later men from the East came, bringing gifts for my son. Those gifts were a blessing. I remember Egypt and coming back to Natzeret, (Nazareth). Whenever we were in need G-d provided us with the way; we are in His hands.
But now my dreams have turned to nightmares. How could this have happened? Help me Father, I am broken, broken. Let me die now. Why have you taken him, my firstborn son? Did you not see how he suffered? Take me; I do not want to live.

Father; I did not understand. Forgive me. I weep, but now my tears are tears of joy. Never did I imagine such pain, such sorrow, and such joy. My son lives. Father, he lives. You allowed our son to be taken, to be lifted up, to die on the stake for the benefit of all humanity.  Now, I see. Truly our HaMoshiach lives and we too will live. I walked with him; I’ll walk with Him again. Glory be unto thee; my work is finished.
Great are your works my L-rd! All glory be unto Adonai. I shall spend my days in singing praises. Your humble handmaiden is content. Truly salvation is come to all people.

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short story contest

Challenge 1, Group 1:  science fiction; include an animal quarantine facility and a scone.


Hancock’s eyes crinkled in delight at the sight of the Intergalactic Travel Services Way Station slowly rotating below his window. The way station was anchored in place, a stationary location in the ever-moving expanses of space. He maneuvered his lumbering transport vehicle into the dock and exited through the air lock. Maharg looked up, brushing crumbs from his mouth, as Hancock entered the office.

Hancock nodded at the skinny, four-eyed public servant and wondered to himself where in the universe they’d found an Isovenutian willing to work in the intermediate space station holding area. But it was good luck for him. Isovenutians weren’t detail oriented, but they did like to deal. And they loved pastry.

Hancock tapped the bell on the counter; Maharg jumped. “Calm down, little buddy; it’s just me.” Maharg twisted his skinny neck, making eye contact and hissed a greeting. Hancock smiled, “Whadda ya got for me today, Mah?”

“Don’t call me Mah!” The Isovenutian spit the words out. Hancock moved back from the counter. It must be tough trying to talk with a forked tongue. “Eventually everything comes through here,” Maharg sputtered now keeping his tongue under somewhat better control. “Somebody decides they have to have a Nagem goose from the spirogyratica orbit, but of course it has to stay here for the required thirty days. That’s way too long for most animals. Then we’ve got the entire research wing. I could tell em a thing or two about research animals. They all need more attention than I can give em, and that’s talking about the healthy specimens. Whatdda they think, I got eyes in the back of my head? They shoulda hired me an assistant, preferably a Valdanoblis. But no.”

Hancock listened as the overworked little caretaker ranted. Did anybody really care who they hired in an out of the way quarantine facility in a bureaucracy as big as Intergalactic? They had to provide quarantine services; they didn’t have to keep the animals alive. But Hancock loved animals, all kinds of animals. Well, not loved exactly. He was fascinated by animals, by the colors, the textures, the size and shape. He’d dedicated his life to these animals. “I know you get something of everything, but whadda you have for me today?”

Maharg sputtered and closed his mouth. He swallowed and looked down at his fingers, counting what he had in the freezer. “Okay, I got seventeen species of fowl, nine amenotoads, six mamilariana, and,” he stopped and breathed in making a slurping sound, “and one sarubian tiger. And it’s a beauty. Listen to me, Hancock. When you see this thing your eyes are going to pop right out of that armored skull of yours.”

Hancock tilted his head and looked at the Isovenutian. “What are you talking about Mah? You like these animals?”

Maharg winced at the name-calling and nodded, all four eyes bobbing in unison. “Hey, when you’re here all day like I am you kind of get to know the critters. I mean some of em really have a personality. But that sarubian, he takes the cake.”

Hancock rubbed his chin. Maybe there was more to Maharg than met the eye. “So, tell me, what are you doing here? I mean how’s a nice guy like you end up in a dead end job like this?”

Maharg shrugged, “You know, you gotta do something. My family used to say I wasn’t the sharpest tool in the warehouse. I didn’t really like school but I liked animals. I thought maybe this job would suit me.”

“And does it?”

Maharg looked away and tears slid from his eyes, splashing on the countertop. Embarrassed he leaned down, looking for some imaginary object under the counter. “It’s pretty lonely here. And so many of the animals die. Well, you know. That’s why you come by. I mean, not that I don’t appreciate it. I freeze the carcasses, you pick them up, I make a little money, but I can’t spend my money here. And even if I went someplace else I don’t know anybody. Oh don’t listen to me. I don’t know. Most of the time I tell myself I’m lucky to have such a cushy job. I’ve watched every flik on the net. You should see the impressions I can do.”

Hancock looked at Maharg’s long snout, his short arms and splayed digits and decided not to pursue the impressions offer. He looked out the window at the endless black sky and shuddered. “You know, I have a real big contract with the Interplanetary Natural History Museum. I mean a really big contract. You’ve been a big help to me. But what I really need is an assistant. I need somebody who knows animals. You know what I mean?”

Maharg stamped his foot. Did you listen to me at all? I’m not smart. I can’t be the assistant to a scientist like you. Anyway, Intergalactic owns me. Leave me alone.”

Hancock laughed out loud. “Scientist? I’m not a scientist; I’m a taxidermist. I need somebody who really sees animals, who understands animals. You can’t prepare an animal unless you understand it. I’ve seen taxidermists turn out a crabledockle that looks like a snake. No sense of proportion at all, and you’ve got to pay attention to the details. That’s what I’m looking for.”

Hancock gripped the Isovenutian’s skinny hand. “Come with me. Leave Intergalactic. I’ve got a lab on board. Training starts right after takeoff. I’ll even share my mimos scones with you.”

Maharg grimaced, then grinned from ear to ear. Why not take a chance for once in his life?

Whatever it was that Hancock saw in Maharg that day, it must have been the same thing he saw and understood in his animals, the sense that made every creature he touched beautiful. And it was that same ability to see into the hidden recesses of another creature that over time undeniably created the greatest team of taxidermists in the universe.








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learning the lesson

My first car was a little MG. My parents bought it the year I started at the Junior College and it became my commuting car.  I drove it to work and I drove it up and down the open roads around my home on the east bay of northern California.  I drove that little car full out.  I learned to drive a stick shift (five speed) on my way to school and back.  And I loved it.

Now the way the brain works is fairly mechanical making judgments and decisions based on earlier experience.  So , fifty years later I’d still get behind the wheel of my car and drive full out.  I passed the other cars on the road.  I didn’t drive, I flew.  The drive to the store was a race with myself.  I set goals—I can be at milepost X in ten minutes. Oh, wow!  I shaved a minute off my time.  Trouble is I was not driving on a race track.  I wasn’t even driving a race car.

So, a few years ago when I owned a Mini Cooper I was tooling along, not of the freeway, but on a winding rural road that followed the curves of the land.  Up and down, up and down feeling good, not watching my speedometer, when suddenly a cop pulls up behind me.  “Excuse me, ma’m.  Do you know how fast you were going?” And I have to answer truthfully, “I’m sorry officer.  I don’t know.”  Then the officer surprised me, saying, “I bet this little car is fun to drive.”  And I said, “It sure is.” So he said, “You were going way too fast.  Try to hold it down and have a nice day.”

I loved that cop, and I slowed down for a while.  But, inevitably my speed crept back up.  And it caught up with me.  I got stopped on the freeway recently and I got a speeding ticket.  I wanted to be mad at the cop.  He could have given me a warning. But why would he?  I was going too fast.  And I have had warnings.  So I took the ticket and signed up for traffic school.  And I sat down and gave myself a talking to.  That’s the good thing about us humans.  We can reteach our brains if we are mindful of our thinking.  Our responses are usually pretty automatic, and I had been driving for a long time when I got that speeding ticket, but we can change.

So I slowed down.  I’ve been driving the speed limit for three weeks and I discovered something incredible.  Lots of people drive the speed limit.  I guess I was always in a race with those folks driving in the mid-80’s and I never noticed that the rest of those cars were actually sticking pretty close to the posted speed.  I thought everybody was speeding, but it wasn’t so.

Wow. And I thought how lucky we are to be given chances so we can learn and change.  If I had just slowed down back when I was driving the Mini I would have saved myself time, money and trouble.  But I guess I needed that ticket. I think this is how God works. He counsels us, he warns us, but finally if we need that ticket, we get the ticket.  Not that he’s a traffic cop.  But when we’re young and don’t understand the restraints that protect us, God is mindful of us.  And if and when we haven’t learned the lessons we should learn, at some point He stops us, and says “Hold it down, do better, and have a nice day.  But if a gentle warning isn’t enough eventually we have to pay the penalty, and maybe then we’ll listen and learn.  Eventually we have to become mindful of ourselves and of those around us.  And we see that most of the people along the way are following the rules and doing the best they can, looking out for others in their path.  And they still get where they’re going on time.

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I like chocolate and I thought I knew a lot about chocolate.  It’s not just because I eat chocolate and get up in the middle of night and fix cocoa. No, it’s more basic than that.  I’ve bought cocoa beans in the public market in Tamazunchale. And I followed the instructions the little old lady gave me.  I toasted them in a cast iron frying pan, peeled the skin off, ground the bean and made incredible bitter cocoa powder.  That’s  really basic chocolate knowledge.  I’ve picked cocoa pods off the tree in Guerrero, split them open, and seen the white pulp covering the white beans layered inside.  And that little woman in the market told me the beans have to dry out and then they turn dark brown.  So I always believed that.

But they don’t dry the seeds.  The seeds have to ferment for seven days under fairly strict conditions to take on that dark brown color and become what we know as cocoa.  I just found that out.  Chocolate is a fermented food.  I don’t know why that surprised me or why I like the idea so much.  But there it is.  The most delicious food in the world and once again we have bacteria to thank for it!

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Criminal Justice Reform

Here is another article I really liked.  Daniel O leaves some unfinished sentences and thoughts, but overall his blog is interesting and informative.

The Mormon Case for Criminal Justice Reform

Posted on November 27, 2015 by Daniel O

In October 2015, Senator MIke Lee gave what I believe to be one of the single most important public policy addresses of our generation entitled The Conservative Case For Criminal Justice Reform. In his address to the Heritage Foundation, Senator Lee lays out a conservative and moral basis for supporting efforts to reform our criminal justice system and focus on the rehabilitation of criminals. This is an excerpt of my favorite part, but implore you to read his powerful address in full:

“If there is one thought I can leave with you today, it’s this: criminal justice reform doesn’t call on conservatives to compromise our principles, but to fight for them. It’s about making our communities—the little platoons of service and cooperation at the heart of our republic—safe and prosperous and happy.

 It’s about basing our laws, our court procedures, and our prison systems on a clear-eyed understanding of human nature—of man’s predilection toward sin and his capacity for redemption—along with an uncompromising commitment to human dignity.

 Respect for the equal dignity of all human life, no matter how small or weak, and for the redemptive capacity of all sinners, no matter how calloused, is the foundation for everything that conservatives stand for. Our approach to policing and punishment should be no different. So, as I see it, criminal justice reform properly understood represents principled conservatism at its best.”

In this post, I hope to expand somewhat on Senator Lee’s vision, and lay out a moral and spiritual case for criminal justice reform from an LDS perspective.

At its core, as Senator Lee notes, criminal justice reform is predicated on the foundational belief mankind has equal dignity, and that while we have a predilection towards sin, we also have the capacity for redemption. In other words, it is based in our faith that the Atonement of Jesus Christ is real and can transform even the most reprobate and wicked of sinners.

It is well known that Senator Lee is a member of the LDS Church. And it isn’t surprising to see a member of the LDS Church advocating for criminal justice reform. After all, Joseph Smith in his brief run for President took a strong stance on the need to reform prisons and to focus on rehabilitation rather than mere putative punishment.

Indeed, Joseph Smith linked the inhumanity of the prison system to the evils he saw in institutionalized slavery. He noted that the ideals of the Declaration of Independence went unfulfilled because “some two or three millions of people are held as slaves for life, because the spirit in them is covered with a darker skin than ours; and hundreds of our kindred for an infraction, or supposed infraction, of some over wise statute, have to be incarcerated in dungeon glooms, or suffer the more moral penitentiary gravitation of mercy in a nut-shell.”

And Joseph Smith’s proposal for our prison system is startling and radical:

“Petition your state legislatures to pardon every convict in their several penitentiaries, blessing them as they go, and saying to them, in the name of the Lord, go thy way and sin no more. Advise your legislators when they make laws for larceny, burglary or any felony, to make the penalty applicable to work upon roads, public works, or any place where the culprit can be taught more wisdom and more virtue; and become more enlightened. Rigor and seclusion will never do as much to reform the propensities of man, as reason and friendship. Murder only can claim confinement or death. Let the penitentiaries be turned into seminaries of learning, where intelligence, like the angels of heaven, would banish such fragments of barbarism. Imprisonment for debt is a meaner practice than the savage tolerates with all his ferocity. ‘Amor vincit amnia.” Love conquers all.’”

 Today, rather than “seminaries of learning,” our prisons are breeding grounds for filth and vice.  Such prisons utterly fail to “reform the propensities of man.” Instead, the basest tendencies are affirmed and strengthened.  This should not be. When we place individuals in prison and continually label them or treat them as depraved and irredeemable, we mock the power of Christ’s atonement and we do a grave disservice to those who are put in prison.

But perhaps even worse is how we treat convicts once they are let out of prison. Today, a conviction is a scarlet letter that bars individuals from employment, housing, and opportunity. Thus, those who most need to be rehabilitated into society are locked out of the very things they need to get a fresh start. Is it any wonder that so many relapse and fall back into a life of crime? We fall short of the Prophet’s injunction to “bless them as they go, and say to them, in the name of the Lord, go thy way and sin no more.’

If all ex-convicts were murders or rapists, it would be more understandable, although still deeply problematic, that felons would be shunned. But the multiplication of statutes and laws means that individuals are frequently punished for infractions that are seemingly minor. (For instance, last year the Supreme Court in a narrow 5-4 decision overturned the conviction of an individual who had been convicted, under a statute intended to prevent corporations from shredding documents, when he threw a fish overboard during a government investigation) And as Senator Lee notes in his address, punishment may often come without a culpable intent or mens rea. We have turned the law into a snare for the unwary, with utterly tragic consequences.

All the while, innocent individuals are coerced by the power of the state to take plea bargains even if they did not do the crime, even as their assets are frozen so that they cannot hire quality counsel. Taking guilty individuals and putting them in our prison system is problematic, but doing so to an innocent person is morally unconscionable. And to top it off, we have taken away discretion from judges to weigh aggravating and mitigating factors and provide a fair and just sentence. In order to appear tough on crime, we have chosen justice over mercy and ignore the individual humanity of those who have committed crimes. (And there are so many other problems with our system that I have no

There should of course be punishment. Wrongful acts require consequences. And mercy cannot mock the demands of Justice.  Full restitution is essential for true repentance. But we should also remember the powerful promise of the Lord that offers all who repent: “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.” (D&C 58:42).

We do not have God’s perspective or his infinite knowledge. We cannot see into the hearts and minds of those arrested of crimes. We cannot truly know if they will again fall back into crime. And we must protect innocent individuals from harm. Yet, our criminal justice system should be reoriented towards the vision of Joseph Smith and towards the rehabilitation of criminals.

In prison, individuals can be taught values that they were not taught due to poverty or ill circumstance. They can be taught to appreciate hard work, to learn teamwork and cooperation, to develop the skills needed for citizenship. And this transformation can also There have been powerful stories featured in the Ensign of hearts softened and lives transformed even while in the depths of prison. Not all individuals will take advantage of these opportunities. Certainly, they maintain their agency. But we can do a much better job as a society of providing the opportunity to these individuals. And instead of shunning those who come out of prison, we can extend a hand of fellowship and help to support them as they transition back into society.

As Senator Lee memorably declared, “the pursuit of happiness depends on the opportunity to earn second chances.” This opportunity to earn second (or third or fourth etc.) chances is at the core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and at the core of the values of the United States. Ours is a land of great opportunity and promise, where individuals are encouraged to risk, create, and when necessary start again. Our liberal bankruptcy policies offer the opportunity to wipe away past debt and to once again be able to strive for happiness.  Shouldn’t our criminal justice system also reflect this vision?

I believe that criminal justice reform is truly a bipartisan issue and one that should unite all people of faith. But we as Mormons have a uniquely eternal perspective which should give us an even greater commitment to this cause. We know that our fellow brothers and sisters once chose to follow God and to choose the right path in the pre-mortal existence. And we know that those who are now fallen can nevertheless rise towards eternal exaltation. We also believe that the light of Christ touches all people throughout the world and inspires them to do right. With all of these reasons to see the good in others and to believe in their potential for redemption, we should be first to urge reform of our broken and morally unjust criminal justice system.


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Down the Colorado

I came across the following this morning in the Wall Street Journal:

Iran’s Long Tentacles 
Iranian cyberspies infiltrated the control system of a small dam less than 20 miles from New York City two years ago, sparking concerns that reached to the White House, according to U.S. officials. The still-classified dam intrusion illustrates a top concern for authorities. America’s power grid, factories, pipelines, bridges and dams are largely unprotected on the Internet, and—unlike in a traditional war—it can be difficult to know where or whether an opponent has struck. Meanwhile, the Obama administration, pushing to support international trade with Iran, has advised the country’s rulers not to worry about new U.S. legislation that clamps visa restrictions on people who have traveled to Iran.

Now I do not want to get into a discussion here of what Obama has or hasn’t done, what he should or shouldn’t do.  But in Down the Colorado an Iranian cell destroys Glen Canyon Dam using low tech methods with devestating consequences.  Is it possible?  Would a country like Iran even consider such an objective?  Apparently so.

And it makes for an exciting story,  right out of the newspaper (but which fortunately hasn’t happened yet.)  Down the Colorado by Karen Hopkins is available at Amazon in paperback or ebook.

Read it and let me know how what you think!


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Thanksgiving Miracle

A long, very long time ago this land where we live was very different than it is today. There were no cities with tall buildings and roads and cars and busses. There were no airplanes or telephones or computers. No electricity, no microwave ovens, no refrigerators, no TV’s.

There were people here, lots of people who lived in villages and tribes, people who cooked over open fires, who planted crops and hunted for food. People who raised dogs and turkeys and who believed in the Great Spirit.

Most of those people did not know that across the ocean were other people who lived in villages and who planted crops and raised dogs and chickens and pigs and lived with their families and prayed to God in heaven. These people knew very little about each other, but change was coming. Change was coming to the whole world.

Nearly a hundred and thirty years had gone by since Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean into the Caribbean. One hundred years had passed since Cortez’s landing in Mexico had turned that land upside down. Ships now crossed the great ocean seeking lands and fortunes. Twelve years earlier a ship had arrived in Virginia and settlers had established Jamestown. But the newcomers from across the ocean struggled. Virginia was very different from England. The weather was different, the food was different, the crops were different, and the folks living in nearby villages were very different. There was no gold or silver in Jamestown; everyone had to work very hard just to stay alive. There were no grocery stores nearby; there was no Internet, no next day deliveries. There was no department store with a rack of warm coats. If somebody needed a new coat he likely had to kill and skin a deer, stretch and tan the hide, then cut and stitch together a coat. Or he could send a request back to England, when and if a ship was available. Then of course he would have to wait months or a year for the ship to return and hope that perhaps that warm coat was in one of the bundles on board.

Jamestown did not do very well. One of the settlers in Jamestown was a man named Steven Hopkins. Steven was discouraged with the way things were going in his new home. He missed his wife and family. Steven volunteered to return to England on the supply ship and see that the colony received the things they needed. He planned to bring his wife and children back to their new home in Virginia.

When Steven arrived in England terrible news awaited him. His wife and some of his children had died while he was away. He didn’t know they had died until he got home. There were no telegraphs or post offices to send letters. No one could call or write or email. News moved as slowly as everything else. Steven’s happy homecoming turned into a time of sadness.

Steven did not go back to Jamestown. He stayed in England and took care of his children. He married again, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the strange and exciting land across the ocean. Steven wanted to go back to America. In 1620 Steven learned that a group was getting ready to sail for Virginia. He wanted to go with them. “Go, Steven,” his wife encouraged him. “Go and make a new life for us all.” But Steven would not go without his family. This time if he crossed the ocean he wanted his wife and children with him.

The Hopkins signed up to travel on the Mayflower. The ship was full of religious pilgrims seeking freedom and a promised land, as well as other settlers ready to start a new life in a new land. The Mayflower did not look like a flower at all. She was small and stuffy and crowded. But she was going to cross the ocean.

The winds blew and rain fell. The Mayflower started out from England three times and turned back. Some of the pilgrims gave up and stayed behind. Still the little ship was full with 102 settlers and fifty sailors. It was the middle of September before the little Mayflower sailed away from land for the last time and into the deep ocean. Winds pushed the little ship forward, but those same winds split the main mast.

The sailors argued about what to do. They were halfway to the new world, but without the mast the trip would be very long if they arrived at all. One of the pilgrims wondered if the heavy press he had brought for printing books and pamphlets could be used to repair the mast. The sailors scratched their heads. The men placed the flat iron plates of the press on either side of the mast and turned the screw that pulled the plates together. They were able to use the press to lift and repair the mast. The passengers laughed and sighed in relief. They prayed and thanked God. The ship was saved and they were able to go forward. They were behind schedule, but they were on the way.

The little ship drifted off course in the stormy seas. When land was sighted on November 9, 1620 they were much further north than they thought. Instead of Virginia, the Mayflower anchored at Cape Cod in New England. The weather was cold, snow covered the ground, trees grew right down to the water’s edge. The pilgrims did not know who this land belonged to. It was a strange land, very different from England or Holland with their civilized streets and cities and harbors filled with ships. Still the sight of land was wonderful for these people who had been cooped up inside a ship for nine long weeks without even a Laundromat to wash their clothes. Even if they weren’t where they were supposed to be they were here; they hadn’t drowned in the depths of the sea. Now they could begin to plan for their new lives.

Where were they supposed to be? Virginia was far to the south. What should they do? The people talked and talked. Should they stay or should they go? The bay was full of fish, but no one had thought to bring fishhooks. Hardly anyone had brought building tools. They hadn’t thought about what it would be like to be so far from home and the store. How were they going to get along in this new land where everything depended on what they could do?

Elizabeth Hopkins had a new baby boy named Oceanus, the first child born during the crossing. Steven looked forward to settling the new land, to building a home and a life with his wife and children. He had some idea of what lay ahead.

But the pilgrims were afraid of the air, the food, and the water. Clear streams and ponds lined the shore, but the pilgrims drank beer. Was the water safe? They didn’t know. They were afraid of the Indians who were said to be cruel savages, treacherous, merciless cannibals who might be waiting to kill and eat the unwary. There were so many dangers, so many unknowns now that they had actually arrived.

But in the face of these supposed dangers the pilgrims went forward, slowly but forward nonetheless.

They were tired and hungry. They were dirty and there were no friends waiting to welcome them ashore. There were no hotels with the lights on, no houses with warm food or hot showers or soft pillows. There was only the unknown wilderness stretching before them filled with wild people and wild beasts.

Their leader, John Carver insisted they write a governing document before they left the ship. They wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact, a document that helped hold the tiny community together in the months that followed through difficult times and times of plenty. The Mayflower Compact became a model for other democratic governments in the future, although at the time it was made just to help the small group get along.

On November 11, a dozen men left the ship and set foot for the first time on American soil. They looked around near the beach but did not go too far from the safety of the shore. Still they returned to the Mayflower with fresh water, firewood, and lots of mussels. Everyone ate mussels until they were sick—literally sick, retching and throwing up mussels.

The next morning women headed to shore with their dirty laundry. Even in the bitter cold it felt good to be off the ship. It felt good to wash their hands and faces in the cold, fresh water in the ponds near the shore. It felt good to have clean clothes for the first time in nine long weeks. They hung their clothes on the bushes to dry and undoubtedly knocked ice off the frozen clothes to hurry the drying process along.

While the women did laundry the men explored the shoreline, looking for a likely spot to settle. They soon spotted five Indians and a dog walking toward them. But when the Indians saw the settlers they turned and ran into the woods. They had heard terrible things about these strange men from across the ocean. The Englishmen were ferocious, cruel, and merciless savages who might kill them without cause. The pilgrims, led by Miles Standish, followed the Indians into the woods and back over the sand dunes. They followed them for ten miles but the Indians did not stop or turn around.

Finally the settlers stopped and made camp. The next morning they tracked the Indians across a creek and back into the woods. Finally they turned back following the shoreline past cleared fields and through stands of walnut trees heavy with nuts. They came to an area of disturbed earth and dug into the soft soil. There they found bushels of seed corn packed in baskets and buried for the spring. The kernels were red and yellow and blue. The pilgrims had never seen grain like this but they took as much as they could carry and headed back to their ship. When they finally got back to the Mayflower they were hungry and thirsty even though they had crossed clear fresh water streams, passed through walnut trees, and filled their pockets with corn. They had a lot to learn about this new land.

There was so much that was new and so much that was unknown. The pilgrims had boat called a shallop on board the Mayflower. Now they decide their best bet would be to explore the bay with the shallop. The shallop needed repairs and the pilgrims waited ten long days before setting off again. When the shallop was ready thirty-four men set off to explore the coast.

On this trip they found ten more bushels of corn, a graveyard and abandoned houses. The corn saved the ill prepared settlers. Had they not found bushels and bushels of seed corn the pilgrims’ story would have been quite different and we would not be celebrating Thanksgiving the way we do today.

While the men were out exploring Mrs. White gave birth on board the Mayflower to a little son, Peregrine. When Mrs. White died, Elizabeth Hopkins took little Peregrine and raised him as her own. Life continued.

By December first all the explorers were back on board the Mayflower. The pilgrims argued over where the best place would be to settle, but finally agreed to settle somewhere within the Cape Cod harbor. They had spent their time so far on a narrow strip of land forming the outer edge of the bay. The mainland lay twenty-five miles across the water. Once again a group set out in the shallop, leaving the safety of the shoreline and heading across the open water of the bay. They saw no Indians on the mainland but once again stumbled through graveyards and abandoned houses. They spent a cold night in the open and the next morning decided to leave their heavy guns at the shallop while they explored on foot. No sooner had they set their guns aside when the alarm sounded, “Indians, Indians!” and a storm of arrows came flying into camp. Only four men were armed, but they fired their muskets as the others ran to the water’s edge to retrieve their weapons. Arrows flew, piercing the men’s coats hanging from branches, but not one man—pilgrim or Indian—was hit. A musket ball spit the tree where an Indian stood directing the attack, and the Indians fled. The pilgrims gathered up several dozen arrows, tipped with brash, bone, and eagle claw. They admired the arrows and eventually sent them back to England where they are still today.

After a series of adventures and misadventures the explorers came to the mouth of Plymouth Bay. They had been in Cape Cod for more than a month when they finally found a site acceptable to all. In the previous month seven settlers had died of disease and William Bradford’s wife Dorothy had slipped overboard and drowned in the frigid water only two days before her husband returned with the good news of a town site.

Bad weather delayed the landing, but on December 16 the Mayflower finally moved across the bay and the advance party went ashore. On December 18 another group followed. Fresh water creeks flowed into the bay here. Fish and wild birds were plentiful, the soil was fertile, the trees grew straight and tall. After walking the area the men agreed to build a fort on the hill overlooking the bay. Construction began on Christmas Day on a twenty by twenty foot common building where people could stay and where goods could be moved off the ship.

Smoke was often seen off in the distance but no Indians came near. Within two weeks the common building was ready except for a roof. Within two more weeks a second common building was near completion and most of the supplies had been moved off the Mayflower. Construction was underway on individual and family homes, but the remaining supplies from the ship would not be brought ashore until the third week of March. Everything took time.

January was a hard month for the little band. Despite the construction, or perhaps because of the hard labor in the freezing cold, another twenty settlers died in January. The original group of 102 pilgrims and settlers was not reduced to fewer than seventy. On February 12 they group had been in Cape Cod for over three months. While they had made some progress, they feared for the survival of their little group. Illness continued to plague the pilgrims and the death toll grew. A graveyard was soon filled with the bodies of friends and family members. By the end of February there were only fifty survivors, and of those only six or seven were in relatively good health. Those few cared for the sick and continued building.

With the arrival of spring the weather improved and with it men’s spirits and health seemed to improve. Those who survived that first winter seemed reinvigorated and strengthened for the tasks ahead.

On March 16th to the settlers’ astonishment an Indian approached and marched right down the row of houses into town. The pilgrims had been looking for Indians for months. They wanted to know who this land belonged to. They wanted to meet the neighbors, but they were taken by surprise when an Indian walked right in. Imagine their amazement when the Indian, wearing nothing but a loincloth, with half his face painted black, waved and called out in English with a cheery “Welcome people!” The pilgrims hardly knew what to think. Who was this man and how could he speak English?

The Indian told the English his name was Samoset. He had learned to speak English from fishermen up in Maine. Samoset was not from the Plymouth area, but word of the pilgrims’ arrival had reached his tribe to the north. When he heard they had come he began walking south to meet and greet them.

Even more incredible, Samoset told the settlers about another Indian, Squanto, who spoke English much better than Samoset could, and who had actually lived in England. The pilgrims found this hard to believe. They had never heard of an Indian living in England, but they were anxious to meet Squanto.

Samoset explained that four years before the arrival of the Mayflower a plague (possibly small pox) had wiped out the inhabitants around Plymouth Bay. That explained the graveyards the English had found, the untended fields, and the few Indians in the area. Samoset showed the pilgrims the cleared fields and the buried seed corn. It was time to plant. The fields had been abandoned; the Indians here would not be back. The pilgrims should feel free to plant and tend the fields. It was as if the land had been prepared for them.

This set the pilgrims minds at ease. They were not infringing on other men’s land or taking away other’s livelihoods.

Samoset was happy with his new friends. He spent the night in Steven Hopkins ‘ small home but left in the morning. He was back the next day with five friends, all anxious to meet the white men. Samoset was in contact with the Indians still in the area and within a week the great chief Massasoit came calling accompanied by friends and attendants including the now legendary Squanto.

Squanto did indeed speak English. He had indeed traveled and worked on an English fishing vessel for some time. He had also had the bad fortune to be captured by the notorious slaver Captain Hunt, and carried toward Spain to be sold. He had survived a shipwreck and been picked up by English sailors, who when they saw that he spoke English took him back with them to England. He had spent some time in England only returning to the Plymouth area in late 1619—a year before the arrival of the pilgrims. Because of his travels and adventures he was not in the area at the time of the plague and so survived only to find his friends and family dead, their bones scattered, and the fields fallow.

Squanto was lonely, but he was now able to act as a go between and translator for the English settlers and the tribes governed by Chief Massasoit. Governor Carver met formally with Massasoit and a treat was agreed on. The settlers and the Indians would defend each other in war and live in peace, esteeming each other as friends and allies. This treaty was observed by both sides for a number of years and allowed for the settlers’ establishment in their new land.

Eventually Samoset returned home to Maine, but Squanto stayed on with the pilgrims for the rest of his life. His assistance and his ability to interpret and smooth relations with the Indians were invaluable. He gave his peoples’ land to the settlers as a gift without strings attached. Squanto was considered a “special instrument sent of God for their good and beyond their expectation.” Indeed, the arrival of Squanto must be considered one of the miracles that led to the survival of this small band in the wild new land.

Serving the pilgrims now became Squanto’s mission in life. He taught them to plant and tend corn using a small fish as fertilizer. He taught them to trap and hunt. He taught them what plants were edible and could be cultivated. He taught them to plant beans and potatoes, pumpkins, squash, strawberries, and cranberries as well as corn—the myriad life sustaining foods not found in Europe.

Squanto turned the settlers toward their new land, with new hope and vision. On April 1, 1621 the Mayflower finally set sail back to England. Not one of the surviving pilgrims asked to return. Now they realized how many mistakes they had made, how little they had known, how unprepared they had been to start a new life. They realized how much they needed Squanto and the many things he had to teach them. The Hopkins remained good friends with Samoset and Squanto, helping Squanto find a home in the new village.

On April 21, governor John Carver died suddenly. William Bradford was selected as the new governor. Bradford was more decisive than Carver had been and was well prepared to lead his little band forward. Massasoit invited the new governor and friends to a reception in his village and they accepted his hospitality. Bradford, Steven Hopkins, and Winslow traveled forty miles through the wilderness sleeping on a pallet all together along with four Indians during their stay in Massasoit’s village. They returned home bleary eyed from lack of sleep but with good relations established.

Marriages followed in the spring and summer, children were born on American soil and the colony prospered. More than twenty acres of corn was planted and grew that first summer as well as many other crops. Treaties were extended to other tribes in the region and peace was established generally.

After a successful harvest the pilgrims determined to give thanks to God and to the local Indians who had helped them survive their first winter. They entertained and feasted with their neighbors for three days. Massasoit’s men brought five deer, turkeys were prepared and so were the native foods—pumpkins, corn, cranberries, walnuts, beans, and potatoes–would have graced the tables. Dancing, singing, and foot races were a part of the celebrations, but not football. Steven Hopkins’ wife Elizabeth helped cook the turkeys and pumpkins, and corn bread and pies.

As the celebration ended a ship was seen out in the bay. On November 9, 1621 the Fortune arrived carrying thirty-five pilgrims, many of them friends and family of the survivors. The new settlers arrived empty handed, without tools, without muskets, without food. The veteran’s rolled their eyes and divided their portion set aside for the winter. Twenty-eight of the newcomers were young men, a welcome addition once they could be taught to survive. Squanto only smiled. His Englishmen had learned a lot in a very short time. It was a miracle anyone had survived, but here they were, and now they would teach the new arrivals.

And so the little colony on Plymouth Bay continued to grow and thrive. And that truly is the miracle!

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An Unsent Letter to my Kids

Written in the 3rd week of August 2014:

I woke up too early this morning. I was outside in time to put the trash to the street at 6:30. I walked down the hill with Michael to cut mesquite. Michael packed his car and got on the road. He had a hard time leaving. Every step away is a step toward the reality that dad is gone.

I went up to Green Valley with Ari and her girls to do some thrift store shopping. I was sitting in the car in front of Goodwill when I suddenly had an overwhelming sense of homesickness—the sense that I could not go home and tell Mike about my shopping and the great bargains I’d found and see his smile, know he’d listen to me because I’d had fun even if he didn’t care at all about the shopping. I couldn’t climb into bed next to him and put my feet on his leg and feel connected and safe. I sat in the car for a few minutes trying to get up the courage to open the door, walk into the store and smile at strangers.

Dad liked to buy me perfume and jewelry. I didn’t wear very much perfume, but since I got home I pick it up and spray it on every morning. Why now?

Ari is flying home tomorrow night. Megan drove back down today with Derek. We can hang out together for a few more days.

I know you are all feeling the same sense of loss I feel. I know you miss dad. I know you’re waiting to wake up and see him here with us again. I wish he was still here. But I think about the pain he felt, the inability to do the things he loved, the way he was trapped in a body that didn’t work right. I wouldn’t wish him back to that. I hope he feels good and strong and whole.

He is waiting for us. He loves us. I feel him still helping me, encouraging me. So if I can help or encourage you, or just cry with you, or remember how much we love each other I will do it.

It hits when I least expect it. Having you here was wonderful. Having all your energy and life in the house lifted me up. I wish dad could have been here with us. Maybe he was. I know he loved having the family together more than just about anything.

Move ahead with your life. It’s what dad wants. Cry when you’re sad; know that life goes forward. Someday we will be together again, Dad and me, with you and your families. We are linked together. We are a family. Work to keep those bonds strong.
I love you.


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The Theology of Relation

Excerpts from an interview with Samuel Brown by Shaun Maher  I really liked this and even bought the book:

(Samuel Brown, an Intensive Care Physician and an Assistant Professor of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine and Medical Ethics and Humanities at the University of Utah, is the author of First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple.)

I wanted to think through what the theology (of relation)  meant for me as a practicing, believing Latter-day Saint in the twenty-first century. If my history work told me anything, it was that the Restoration was about our interdependence as Saints. It was about covenants of mutual regard and belonging strong enough to unite the human family in the face of our inevitable mortality.

When the Protestant Reformers took on what they saw as the abuses of the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, they were especially skeptical of the idea that the Church as the body of Christ could be a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. It was important to them that salvation was fundamentally an individual experience. We all in the West have inherited this suspicion of our interdependence as human beings when it comes to salvation. Joseph Smith didn’t support this Protestant view of our connections to each other, though. Instead, he taught that salvation was a basically communal affair, that what mattered in this life was that we learn how to care about each other the way Christ cares about us. This was the message of Zion, consecration, the temple, and the law of adoption. What matters most during our mortal lives is that we live together in love. In loving, and striving to love, each other, we participate most fully in Christ’s grace.

I was most struck, I think, by a couple of comments Joseph Smith made in sermons. These comments were half humorous and intentionally scandalous to any Protestant listeners, but they spoke volumes about the Restoration. He basically said he’d rather be in hell with his friends than in heaven alone. It would be easy to misread this in our contemporary theology. This wasn’t the adolescent anthem “my friends understand me better than my parents, so I’m going to go smoke in the parking lot and God isn’t so judgmental that he would care.” That’s not what he meant at all. He was saying that you can’t understand heaven without community; it is our connections with each other and with Jesus that matter. The French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre famously said that hell is other people. Joseph Smith taught the opposite: heaven is other people, united together in love of God and each other.

We are human beings. We are always trying, and failing, and trying again. This is true of us as individuals, and it’s true of us as communities. Famously, we as Latter-day Saints had to fall back from consecration to temple attendance and tithing. Periodically, we as a people need to be called to repentance. Sometimes we are better and sometimes worse. When we get obsessed with all our toys and our big houses and forget about the people who live in other houses or even none at all, we aren’t true to that theology of relation. When we foster a Christly love for others, when we make sacrifices for the benefit of others, we are more true to that theology than when we focus on ourselves and our pecking orders and our affluence.

I had seen how central the temple was to what Joseph Smith was doing theologically. The Restoration really came to a head in Nauvoo as Joseph Smith worked to summarize in doctrines and ordinances the core meaning of the revelations that had been vouchsafed to him as a prophet. Life and afterlife are about relationships; it’s relationships all the way down. That’s the spirit of Elijah, that’s the sealing power, that’s the kingdom of heaven. After spending so much scholarly time thinking about what the temple illuminated in Mormon history, I realized that I was beginning to see the Gospel differently in my life as a practicing Latter-day Saint.

This First Principles book was a way to for me to reboot our understanding of what has seemed too familiar for too long. Article of Faith 4 seems so basic on the surface, so familiar and traditionally Christian: faith, repentance, baptism, gift of the Holy Ghost. Those basic principles look like a roadmap for the individual believer through the Christian life. In light of the temple, though, the whole Gospel looks radically different. More Mormon, more ancient, more deeply relational. On that relational view, faith is about trust and fidelity in relationships with God and the Saints, repentance is about reconciliation and the healing power of relationships, baptism is a kind of birth certificate of our adoption by Christ into his family, and so on.

The church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners.” You go to explain, “neither of the extremes of that aphorism taken in isolation actually describes what the church is for. It is true that we are all broken in some way, that each of us bears a burden of inadequacy or fear or pain that needs attention of Christ the Great Physician…But the church also allows us to rub shoulders with people whose weaknesses are different from ours, a fact with an important implication.It’s so easy when we are struggling to understand important or complicated problems to want a simple solution that applies in all cases. I think that desire is what has been behind so much of the arguments about grace versus works. But that thirst for a single model causes us to miss more important truths. The one great truth is God’s love for us and this love can be expressed in many different ways. In some situations, the best way to talk about God’s love is to use the language of grace; in other cases the best way to talk about God’s love is to talk about putting your shoulder to the wheel and doing the work that needs to be done.

How to balance grace or works depends on the contexts and phase of life and the specific struggles an individual is experiencing. At different times and in different ways, some of us are served by discussions of grace, while others are served by an emphasis on works. The debate about whether the church is a museum or a hospital is a part of that same conversation about grace and works. For many of us—especially those of us who have felt like we didn’t fit somebody else’s definition of what a good Mormon looks like—grace and the hospital are the most important conversations. For others of us—including people like my beloved grandfather, who was a practical biochemist and stoic Utah farmboy turned Midwesterner not much taken to weeping—works and the museum were more important.

I love that at church I both find balm for my troubled soul and I see models of people whose love-filled lives are worth emulating. I love the guy in my ward who buys donuts for every wardmember’s birthday and the retired writer who sees beauty and love in orderliness and is always ready with an enthusiastic, kind word. I learn from them weekly. Church is in part a place where we come together with people who are better than we are. One of the paradoxes of the gospel is that everyone is better than we are (and we are better than everyone else). Our strengths and weaknesses are complementary and can be made whole and beautiful within the Church. We learn from each other (museum) and are succored by each other (hospital).

While diversity has become a kind of secular buzzword, there’s a deep truth within it. We shouldn’t allow the angry passion of the culture wars to distract us from deep diversity. In the Gospel we are called to unity in diversity, not the secular model of unity in identity. What’s hard and important is acknowledging differences and allowing them to persist through the unity of mutual commitment. Not a mutual commitment that says we are all identical, but a mutual commitment that says that the body of Christ is a complex, living being with feet and hands and eyes and various internal organs. This unity in diversity is the call of Zion. When we acknowledge that the church is both museum and hospital, we embrace that reality that the body of Christ includes all of us, and that all of us are Saints and sinners, sick patients and exhibits in a holy museum.

With this balance between grace and works, I don’t mean that we should be thinking of Saints as perfect human beings or to suggest that certain people have everything in order in their lives. True Saints are fallen people with all sorts of foibles in addition to their strengths. The process of looking for what is good in others is part of what I mean by the museum. Just as some works of art require a bit of time and commitment to see their deep truth and beauty, so do many of us require a second look to see our strengths. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for that beauty and strength and embrace it when we see it.

Repentance, like the rest of our experience of the church community, draws on both grace and works at different times and in different ways. Sometimes repentance is all about feeling God’s forgiving love and giving ourselves permission to believe that through God we can be made whole. At other times repentance is about seeing ways we can improve, perhaps drawing courage from how good a friend is at doing certain things. Not because we are in competition with that person or judged for not being like her but because when we live together in love we are able to see more of what is beautiful in each other and to want to emulate that goodness and beauty.

One of the many reasons that mental illness can be devastating is that it interferes with the connections we have with God. Mental illness can destroy our emotional and spiritual senses.  Mental illness is difficult. It’s hard for everybody, but especially for the person who is trying to see both the outside world and inside himself through a lens distorted by mental illness. The world looks bleaker, less friendly, and the self seems unworthy or unable to fit in. God may seem angry and distant or even a figment of the imagination or a cruel joke. Usual approaches to talking about spiritual promptings—feelings of joy, peace, or happiness telling us what to do—may actively backfire because mental illness can cloud an individual’s ability to feel those things. And the lack of access to such feelings can make the sufferer feel needlessly abandoned by God.

It takes work to know and love the individual within the mental illness. It’s hard to know how best to proceed. It’s a lot like dealing with grief. Much as in the aftermath of a death, platitudes and hollow expressions of solidarity are unlikely to help much and may even estrange the sufferer from well-intended friends. Mental illness may even be harder than grief, though, because with grief there’s a concrete thing that the sadness or worry is associated with. With depression or anxiety the sadness and worry float about freely, permeating everything.

Practical guidance on what to do is hard to come by, but I think that there are some basic principles relevant to loving people with mental illness. Don’t be afraid of or denigrate psychotherapy and medications. For many people such treatments can be life saving. Be careful to avoid blaming. People with mental illness often believe themselves somehow responsible for their plight and will attend to any suggestion, however unconscious, that this is the case. The stereotypical blaming of other people for their plight is itself an expression of the terror that it might be true that they’re responsible for their own misery. At the same time, most people with mental illness don’t want to be looked at like they’re damaged goods or treated like a child. In my experience people most often want patience and loyalty and to be enjoyed as an individual.

As I’ve thought about First Principles and heard back from readers, I’ve realized that I wanted to do two things with this book. I wanted to introduce people to these incredibly rich and beautiful themes in our history and theology and to explore the ways that they apply in our lives now. I also wanted to let people know that I’m a Mormon, that readerly, academic people well-versed in our history could stay committed, eyes wide open, to the body of Christ. There is much to sustain all of us here, and I find this Internet narrative that knowledgeable people who live the life of the mind can’t possibly stay Mormon to be deeply confused.

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A Weed in the Garden of Life

With my thoughts turned to gardening I came across an article the other day and after reading partway through it I went back and read it out loud to my daughter and two of my sons.  In the article a woman talks about her neighbor’s son who has had one problem after another, and she sums him up tidily saying, “He is a weed in the garden of life.”  When I read that phrase my son looked up and responded, “That is so wrong on so many levels.” And my daughter frowned and said, “She probably felt really clever with that description.”  My kids are adults in their thirties by the way, not idealistic teenagers.

And I (also an adult) found the expression painfully wrong.  Why?  Because a weed is an unwanted plant, a worthless plant, one that should be pulled up and discarded.  A weed should not be allowed to live and grow.  A weed chokes out desirable plants.  A weed is bad.  And humans are not weeds.

None of my kids took an easy path from childhood to adulthood.  They did not grow in the straight lines I laid out in my garden.  They came up where they weren’t supposed to be and they grew in their own ways.  I am sure they each felt like the weed in the garden of life at times growing up.  They have all reached adulthood successfully but they know what it is to stumble, to take a wrong turn, a misstep, to be considered less than desireable.  My second son summed it up fairly well yesterday when he said, “We all could have ended up in prison at some point, but  we were lucky, and we learned from our mistakes.”  (Prison, while a growth industry apparently, does not promote growth and should be avoided.) We have got to find better ways to reach out to friends, family, and our neighbor’s wayward son who is struggling—better ways than dismissal.  Dismissal helps no one.  It is painful. But it is a quick and and easy response, maybe even clever.  No need to get your hands dirty.  Pull out that weed, toss him on the heap.

What is a weed anyway?  That unwanted plant growing where it shouldn’t be.  Sunflowers are weeds along the side of the road.  Does that make them any less beautiful?  Plant sunflowers in the garden and no one calls them weeds. Perception defines the weed.   I wonder what might happen if we actually nourished the unwanted and unwatered, offered love rather than scorn.

It’s just a thought.

Another happy thought, I saw 6 of my kids this week and not a weed in the patch.

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