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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Of love and water

I began watering my grapes in February. I live in the hill country in southern Arizona. Our season starts early but it’s not Phoenix. We get cold days and nights still in February and even some cold days in March. When I started watering my vines looked dead. I took two cuttings from my biggest vine and planted them in the ground. Soon one sprouted leaves. My grandson stepped on the other one and it snapped in two. I kept watering. Now green leaves are thriving sprouting from one dead stick, and my established grapes are glorious!
But I have two red grape vines that are temperamental. They’re French, what more need I say!? Nothing had happened with them in all these weeks. I kept watering. Today on the very bottom of one red grape I saw a tiny pink leaf! Now it has unfurled and is green. The second red vine can’t be far behind. And that dead stick, the one that snapped in two? Little leaves are growing up the stubby stick from the roots.

And isn’t this how life is? When you think there’s no hope, when you’ve been trodden down, dried out and discarded keep on watering. When those you love disappoint, keep watering. We may not see the fruits of our efforts immediately. But love and water are powerful. Both can work miracles if we provide consistently. There may be life in the roots. Don’t give up on yourself, your kids, your spouse, your neighbor. You know who needs that extra care. So remember the garden, and Keep on watering.

Just one warning, In life you can’t water for a day or two and think you’re done.  You have to water daily.  You have to check the plants and the soil.  And if you skip a day you’ve got to give a good soak the following day and hope the drought didn’t reach down and damage those tiny roots.  You just can’t go off and take a watering vacation if you expect life and hope to sprout.   Keep it up, enjoy your fruits.


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Good Grief

I am amazed at the response many well meaning people give a friend who has just lost a loved one. This was brought home to me again recently when a friend of mine, a woman in her late 50’s told us with tears in her eyes, that her mother had passed away that week. Another friend sitting with me immediately started in, “Your mother is in a better place. Where is your faith? Why are you crying? Your mother is finally free, She feels better now, etc. etc.” Quickly I stepped in and told our unhappy friend  it’s alright to grieve.  Even more, it’s a good thing to express  sadness at the death of a loved one. With that she turned to the critical woman and said, “I just miss her,” justifying her feelings.
What is it about death? Why do some people think that when a loved one is gone, even in death we won’t miss them and long for them to be here with us? The same woman who questioned the need for grief has a son who lives in another state. She tells me often how much she misses him, how much she looks forward to seeing him again. Did she shed tears when he left home? I don’t know. But it would be acceptable if she did. No one would question her faith. Faith in what?  That she will see him again?
I have faith  my husband is indeed in a better place, free of a body that no longer worked right for him. But I miss him everyday. Sometimes I cry when I think of him—even eight months after his death. Eight months really isn’t very long is it?  I hope nobody tells me I need to get a grip and get over it already.  (Over what, I wonder.)
I miss him even though Ill see him again someday. I will follow him. We all will eventually, but not now. And right now I miss the daily conversations, the sharing of ideas, the joy of sharing our lives. Don’t deny me the right to miss him, to grieve, to feel lonely sometimes. And don’t deny me the opportunity to talk about him and  smile and laugh at  good memories.  Death is a part of life. Let’s accept it for what it is.  My sadness doesn’t mean I don’t believe in life after this.  It means I don’t like this separation. It’s not a bad thing.  Try it! Let’s cry and laugh together.

Soon enough it will be your turn.

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The Art Collection

Several of the kids, plus spouses, grandkids, etc were here this weekend to celebrate their dad’s birthday. (Somebody had to eat the cake for him.) My son looked at the art work on the walls in our living room, kitchen and bedroom and he asked me about the art. “That’s an original and that’s an original, and that’s an original,” I told him pointing to five of the six pieces in the bedroom. And these are originals, and these are signed lithos, and. . .” I realized we have a really nice art collection in our modest little country house. It’s funny that after being surrounded by art his entire life growing up my son suddenly saw it with different eyes.
He commented on one of the pieces he’d always liked. I smiled,”That was the first nice piece we bought. We hadn’t been married long, we were in the middle of starting our own business, we had no money, and dad saw that hanging in a gallery. He had to have it. We made monthly payments on it for most of a year before we picked it up.”
“Why? Why did you buy it?” my son wanted to know. “Especially at that time when you had so many expenses and the kids coming along and so much to spend money on?”
I smiled, “Your dad liked beautiful things. He wasn’t extravagant in his life, but he wanted his home and family to be surrounded by beauty.”
I think about it. Without him I would never have bought some of our nicest things. I would have admired art but I wouldn’t have woken up to it every morning. And it wasn’t just art. The living room furniture he brought home twenty some years ago has a patina of age and hard use and it still enhances our home. The leather glows more than when it was new. It was the same with the vacations through Mexico and into Central America where we spent so many summers, the time and memory building he invested in the family. He wanted to do things right. He thought about what he wanted his life to be and he invested his time and money to make it happen. He loved books and we have hundreds of books, many signed by the author. Somehow the signature gave recognition and connection beyond picking up a book, reading and putting it down. It acknowledged the work that gave him pleasure. He read books on Kindle, we wrote books for Kindle, but he preferred the real thing. We collected beetles. Beetle collecting gave form and purpose to our vacations. It took us to strange and and wonderful places and it brought us together with interesting people. Our lives and our home were full.
I see so many things, so many memories when I look around that have enriched our family and our home and our lives. Are we wealthy? No. But we live in beauty.

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All We Have is Time

My husband and I came from very different backgrounds. I came from the classic 1950’s family. My mother was a stay at home mom. My dad worked an 8 to 4 job. We lived in company housing from the time I was born until I graduated from high school. We ate dinner together, we had family prayer, we attended church every Sunday. I was the fifth of seven kids. I really believed that everything my parents did was the way things should be done.
My husband came from a broken home. His mother married for the fifth time about the same time we got married. He used to joke that he gained weight in basic training because it was the first time in his life he got three meals a day. He loved the army because of the order it provided him, something he had never had in his life. He was the third of six children. His mother put his older brother up for adoption when the child was two years old. His younger brother died in a bathing accident when my husband was two. His mother told her children again and again that she could have done great things had she not been burdened with children. The way his mother lived became his negative example.
So when we married he was happy to look to my family as an example of how to do things. Except he had formed the habit of making his own decisions and choices about what worked and how life should be lived. My parents lived in the age of efficiency. When there were tasks to be done on a Saturday morning they divided their lists and one went one way and one went the other. Soon after we were married my husband pulled out a list of things we needed to do one afternoon. I looked over the list and said, “I can go to the bank while you go to the cleaners. You can. . .” He gave me a look that stopped me mid-sentence.
“Can’t we just go together?’
“But that’s not efficient,” I sputtered.
“Who cares? I’d rather run errands with you.”
Well who could argue with that? And so we started forming our own patterns, separate and different from those of our families. For forty years we did everything together. We worked together at the same schools, we played together. We shared hobbies, we wrote books, we traveled to interesting places near and far. My parents were fairly restrained in their expressions of affection, but my husband told me he loved me everyday. We raised 8 kids. And the kids went everywhere with us until they finally had to grow up and go to college and make patterns of their own.
And then my husband died. We were on vacation in Peru. Just the two of us. We were having a wonderful time. We had visited my sister and brother in Chile and nieces and nephews. We were headed back to Chile the next morning. But we didn’t make it.
We spent forty years with each other, together.
I couldn’t go with him this time and I miss him. And I am so glad he didn’t listen to me way back then.
Efficient don’t mean a thing.
Time is all we have.

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The widows and the fatherless

How often are the widows and the fatherless mentioned in scripture? Look out for those poor widows and judge the fatherless righteously. It’s there, over and over again.
Now I know who we are and why we need looking after. It isn’t just physical. It isn’t help with the bills at this house. It is spiritual and emotional and words I can’t even conjure up right now. It is hard.
I don’t want to pray right now. I don’t want to read my scriptures. Mike asked me to read the scriptures to him every night. And I did. He said we should set a time when we shut everything else down so we could read and talk. And we did. I don’t want to read without him. It’s an admission that he’s not here. I want him back.
I feel this wavering inside. And I know it’s false. I know what’s true and real for me, but it all shimmers without him to share it with. That’s crazy. It’s not what he would want, it’s not what I want. But I’m like a kid throwing a tantrum. I don’t care about rational. I want my husband back. Now. Not later. I don’t want my life to change. I liked it the way it was.
I was saying my prayers at bedtime. Thinking of the things of the day and I started talking to Mike. Then I started praying again, and I said I know I pray to you God, not to my husband, but I miss him so much. I want to talk to him tonight. And I realized I was a little upset with God. I don’t like his plan right now. I don’t like being alone in my house, not sleeping. I don’t like lonely and I don’t like worrying about the kids and why didn’t they see that life is serious and turn their lives around when their dad died? Why do I still have to worry about them too?
See what I mean? An emotional wreck. Look out for the poor widows. It’s not easy. And we put on our public face, we smile, but there is a big emptiness. The fatherless too. No wonder God tells us to judge these kids, big and small, with a righteous judgement. Maybe they do crazy things. They just lost their anchor. Give ’em some slack. Please. Just for awhile.
I don’t know how long that is. But fatherless doesn’t end very soon. Be patient with us. I’ll try to be patient with me too. And I’ll keep saying my prayers. It’s who I am.

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Daylight Savings? Isn’t there a better way??

Hooray, thank goodness for Arizona!  Daylight savings has come and nothing changes.  What are we saving with daylight savings?  Whatever it is we give it back in the fall.  But meanwhile the sun goes merrily on its way ignoring the clocks and their various settings.  The sun defiantly rises to the middle of the sky in the middle of the day no matter what hour we declare it noon.

And aren’t time zones political in nature?  Years ago when I flew regularly from Delhi to Karachi we all adjusted our watches by fifteen minutes, not marking our changed position on the earth’s surface, but marking the importance of political borders. There is still a fifteen minute time difference between India and Nepal.  Newfoundland is a half hour off from the Canadian mainland, but the French islands of St Pierre and Miquelon in exactly the same longitude are in the same time zone as France. Solidarity!

China and India have only one time zone.  Hmmm.  I wonder what the sun has to say about that.  Russia stays on Daylight time year round, trying to keep ahead of the sun.  Chile while lying directly under New York shares a time zone with western Greenland.  Argentina shares a time zone with easternmost Brazil even though Brazil juts far into the Atlantic.  And of course Hugo Chavez gave Venezuela its own time zone so that he would not have to share the sunshine with the United States!

Even in Arizona time zones can get hinky.  We share the same time with the Pacific zone for part of the year and with the Mountain States for the remainder of the year.  But the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona does change its clocks for daylight savings.  If you live on the edge of the reservation you may be constantly juggling your watch.

Why daylight savings at all I ask myself?  Why four time zones?  Arizona is able to live well in two time zones year round without touching the clock.  Why not combine Pacific and Mountain time by allowing Utah to stay on Standard Time year round and California to stay on Daylight  time?  (With their adjoining states of course!)  And if it works well in the west, why not combine Central and Eastern time in the same way?  That might mean there would be a two hour time difference between the two zones but it should beat the three hour difference we have now with four zones.

I think this is a perfectly reasonable and logical suggestion.  And it would make it easier to call my grandkids in California and New York at any time of the year.  Don’t worry.  The sun will figure it out and go on its rounds as if nothing had changed at all!


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