Saturday, July 18, 2015

Surprised by Faith

Over the past couple of months I've had a feeling that I need to write a book about my faith. (Part of that feeling may come because I'm also writing an academic book on Shakespeare--and you know how being obligated to do one thing makes doing almost anything else suddenly attractive.)

Here's a draft of the beginning of my proposed book, which I may called something like Surprised by Faith: Why I Believe What I Believe and Can't Help Wanting to Share It:

Sometimes I am surprised not just by what I believe but that I believe at all. We live in a world that in many ways is hostile to belief in anything except the prevailing views and attitudes of contemporary culture, views and attitudes imposed on us through media and in many other ways. But I cannot deny the reality and goodness of things I have experienced, even if they seem strange or foolish to those who are attuned mainly to the dominant culture. To be true to the things I have felt and witnessed, I find I must refuse to yield myself to many of the world's prevailing intellectual and cultural currents.

Of course, I am influenced by contemporary culture, and there is much (perhaps too much at times) I value and enjoy in it. In this, as in other things, I find I must be discerning. I must test what surrounds me and hold to what is good and not allow myself to be damaged or swept away by what is not. In general, I think it’s healthy to be skeptical of what is popular. Sometimes popularity represents a genuine response to things that are good and true. Sometimes it stems from a relatively mindless collective complicity in a cycle of imitation, based not so much on the quality of what is popular as on the craving not to be left out. Sometimes popularity has causes more complicated than either of these. Few—even among those trying to make choices with care— think through their grounds for valuing or rejecting what is popular very deliberately, and when examined, these grounds often turn out to be opaque or inconsistent. Many of us spend a good deal of our lives with “a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about” in our heads, as C. S. Lewis put it (The Screwtape Letters, Letter 1). Today, I think, “a dozen” would be a very low estimate.

So how is it possible, as Charles Dickens phrased it, to believe in “seeing visions in the age of railways”—or to update the question, in an age of space travel and the Internet? (See Charles Dickens, “In the Name of the Prophet—Smith!,” Household Words 3.69 [19 July 1851]: 385.) To me such belief seems far from impossible, and not even all that strange. But many people react otherwise, not only to a belief in visions and angels, but to belief in miracles, the literal reality of bodily resurrection, the idea that God is actively involved in the affairs of the world, and the idea that a particular organization—a church—might act with his authority and be an instrument to accomplish his work.

I want to acknowledge and respect the experiences and feelings of others. The world is much larger and more complicated than any of us can comprehend, and we’re more likely to see things truly if we listen to each other. So I offer this, not as the final word on anything, but as my view, based on long thought and experience. I think I understand something—even from the inside—about why it can be hard to believe. I have useful things to share, I think, about why belief makes sense—even why particular beliefs make sense.

Along with all that is confusing and challenging in this world, I can bear witness of the reality of spiritual things, the value of every human being, the goodness of much that is taking place in this world, and the truth and value of certain ways of living. I can share the reasons for my conviction that we are spiritual beings, that our lives have meaning and purpose, that there is a loving God who is actively involved in our lives, that God has worked and continues to work through human beings, that revelation from God continues, that God’s transforming power is made available in specific ways for the blessing of his children, and that the scriptural claims about Jesus Christ and his reality and role are true. And I can share my reasons for being confident not only that these things are true but that they matter. Even the mere possibility that the things I’ve listed are true raises issues of unavoidable importance to everyone living on this planet.

For me, belief is an essential step from the start and remains essential from beginning to end. It is valuable because it makes happiness and hope and love and goodness possible. I want to share my faith because I believe it opens the door to exciting adventures, in this world and the world to come, including, for me and many others, membership in a vibrant institution that is accomplishing remarkable good in this world. Faith also opens the door to relationships that can bring great joy and wonderful blessings, relationships that can endure beyond this life and serve as the foundations for a heavenly life.

To put it simply, faith opens the door to all that we could possibly want and all that we most deeply need, to all that is most truly and transcendently valuable and good. I find it hard to believe that anyone wouldn’t want to consider, at least, the possibility of opening that door.

[I'll keep working on the book . . . and let everyone know when it's done.]

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Stake Conference weekend, April 2015: Magical moments, promptings, tender feelings

Chapel in the Provo Utah Central Stake Center (including a magnificent pipe organ)

It's early afternoon on Sunday, April 19. I'm at home following wonderful--inspiring, empowering--Stake Conference meetings for the Provo Utah Central Stake. The following is not a detailed account but a few notes about some of the highlights.

First, some definitions and background:

Definition 1: "Stake" = an ecclesiastical unit in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints comprising several wards (congregations).

Definition 2: "Stake Conference" = a series of meetings, usually held twice a year in a given stake, to which members of the stake are invited.

Some background: The Provo Utah Central Stake is one of the oldest stakes in the LDS Church. Established in the 1850s, it was the first in Utah Valley. All stakes now in the valley (and there are dozens of them) trace their origin back to this stake. That means that in the High Council room in our Stake Center are pictures of stake presidents going back to pioneer times (the 1850s). Since moving into the stake in 1983, I've served in various callings in the stake and wards in the stake, including counselor in the stake presidency from 1997-2007, with President Lewis Billings and then with President Brian Wolsey. Later (from 2009-2015) I served as bishop of ones of the wards in the stake.

I'm now an assistant clerk in my ward and also serve as an ordinance worker in the Provo Temple.

On my own (temporarily)

I've been alone for the past few days, except for my 29-year-old son, who lives (more or less on his own) in our basement. My wife, Margaret Blair Young, left on Wednesday for an almost week-long trip to Denver and Seattle. She flew to Denver (staying with her sister Lisa), then left early Thursday morning for Seattle so she could attend a meeting titled "Women’s Leadership in the Great Lakes of Central Africa" sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Seattle. Speakers included Roger A. Meece, former ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Muadi Mekenge, program director for sub-Saharan Africa – Global Fund for Women; and Whitney Williams, Founder and CEO, williamsworks, and co-founder and vice chair of the board for Eastern Congo Initiative (a non-profit organization founded by Ben Affleck). Margaret had a great time, made important contacts, and learned more about the Congo (and learned that the speakers share her vision of the Congo and its potential).

How I was involved: I looked up the meeting partly to see where it was located so I could help Margaret find it (long distance, by phone). I noticed that registration for the meeting was required and wondered if Margaret had registered. She thought she had but wasn't sure.

So I called the World Affairs Council of Seattle about an hour and a half before the meeting was to start, discovered that she had joined the organization but not registered for the meeting (which was sold out), and told them she had flown there especially for the event and that it would be very sad if they didn't let her in. They told me they were pretty sure there would be at least one absence and that they should be able to admit her--which they did. I was happy to smooth the way for Margaret to make it to the meeting. She was in Seattle ONLY for that day and mainly for that one event.

Flying back to Denver was even more of an adventure. Snow had fallen in Denver. It took Margaret 3 hours (with the help of an airport worker) to find where she had parked her sister's car. Then it took another hour and a half (part of the time lost) to make it to her sister's house--at 5 or 6 in the morning. She got a few hours sleep and went on to have good days in Denver. On Saturday, she attended presentations given by her friends Terryl and Fiona Givens--about faith and doubt and the wonders of life. (The newspaper article linked here gives a flavor for what they're all about:,)

Margaret is still in Denver. She'll return on Tuesday, in time for her to join me in serving in the Provo Temple.

Magical moments

Like most men in the Church, I'm a home teacher: I visit the homes of several members, offer my help, and try to be their friend. I wanted to make sure the people I visit knew (and remembered) that we wouldn't have regular church meetings this weekend but would have stake conference instead. I started--a couple of days or so ago--by taking a letter from the stake presidency (copied in part below) to my home teaching companion, John Dalley. He was under the weather, so I left the letter with his dad.

John Dalley (center) on the day of his baptism in Sept. 2014, with the sister missionaries on one side and me and Rod Elwood on the other.

Later, while walking our dog, I found John outside and asked if we could visit some of our assigned families on Sunday. If all goes well, we'll be doing some of that today. This encounter with John--and later with people I visit as a home teacher--felt magical for a couple of reasons. The weather has been gorgeous, and it's nice to get out and about. The other reason is that it's often VERY hard to find these people--to find them at home or even get hold of them by phone. Running into John was the first in a series of magical moments.

I spent much of the day on Saturday in my pajamas, grading exams while (part of the time) watching selected episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. About 4:00 p.m. I got dressed and ready to locate some of the people I visit as a home teacher. I had called and texted the first one (who lives across the street) without getting a response. I knocked on her door, which started her dog barking, and hearing that (but not my knocking) brought her to the door and we had a nice conversation on her doorstep.

I then drove a couple of blocks away and knocked on another door, waking up another woman I visit, which led to another brief chat, at the end of which she was almost willing to smile. Then I drove to another woman's apartment. I called her (got no response), rang the doorbell, left a copy of the stake presidency's letter at her door, and was back in my car--when she pulled up behind me, just returning home along with her kids. We had a nice conversation and set up a possible time to meet on Monday.

By then, it was just about time to attend the Saturday evening session of Stake Conference. But to keep up the theme of magical encounters, I'll skip ahead to a post-meeting event.  I went to a local grocery store to get a few supplies. Just as I was checking out, another woman I visit appeared, along with her son. This woman works at the grocery store and works the night shift (till midnight) all this week. So this really was the best way to visit with her. Her son (about 20 years old, stationed at Camp Lejeune) was here briefly because of his father's life-threatening hospitalization--so this was a rare chance for me to meet him. He asked me how he could arrange to have missionaries visit a friend of his in Spain, and so I could help him with that task, I gave him my phone number and e-mail address.

I don't know if I've effectively conveyed how these various encounters felt to me: they just seemed to fall into place. I was in the right place at several moments to see people it's usually much harder and more awkward to locate. I felt somehow that, by going out when I did, by having the desire to be out there and available, I had been allowed to play my part in a little episode of happy encounters, events that had lifted up all of us who were involved and strengthened our bonds.

I kept thinking--in connection with these encounters, but also the one young man's desire to contact missionaries and a host of other things I'm involved with--that when you feel the impulse to do something good, you need to do it. Resisting or putting things off is generally not a good thing. (This reminds me of Ivan Karamazov's resolve to report Smerdyakov's confession--but then his decision to put it off till the next day, a delay that proved to be fatal. You Brothers Karamazov fans out there will know what I'm talking about.)

This weekend's Stake Conference

So . . . before the grocery store trip, I attended the Saturday 6:00 p.m. adult session of Stake Conference.  There were four speakers, President James Pettersson, Sister Tiffany Sorensen, Bishop Dana Dean, and President Edward Carter--each of whom gave very real, very genuinely felt and honestly expressed, very inspired and inspiring talks, the first three mainly about effectively using ward councils.  I was especially affected by the last speaker, President Carter, our stake president, partly because he involved us in a discussion, partly because of the topic. Actually, he brought up several things, including some legal issues related to religious freedom (he's a journalism and legal scholar--has published articles about the Supreme Court, etc.--so he had some useful insights).

But the main topic was how the sacrament (the sacrament of the Lord's Supper) can help us achieve lasting conversion. The discussion was powerful and thought provoking. I got to stand and read some verses from 3 Nephi 18, one of which I had a hard time getting through because it struck me with great emotional force as I was reading it.  (That verse is 11, the words of Jesus in connection with the wine to be drunk as part of the sacrament: "And this shall ye always do to those who repent and are baptized in my name; and ye shall do it in remembrance of my blood, which I have shed for you, that ye may witness unto the Father that ye do always remember me. And if ye do always remember me ye shall have my Spirit to be with you." I've read those words many times before, but reading them out loud, during a Spirit-filled meeting, was especially powerful.)

Earlier in the day I had felt a bit depressed--from inadequate sleep and from being alone, separated from Margaret for several days. But the magical moments of meeting people and the powerful Stake Conference meeting turned my feelings around--lifted me up, renewed me, made me feel in harmony with the flow of life, made me feel, "Yes, this is the way I want to feel. This is the way I want to live." I anticipate the usual ups and downs. But I hope I hold on to the memory of this weekend and its reminder of what life can be like.

Which leads me to Sunday: I was asked to be the chorister--the music leader--for the 7:00 a.m. priesthood leadership session. I got to the meeting 10 minutes early so I could put up the hymn numbers and be ready. I think I did a decent job (though nothing like the expert job Carol Dean had done leading the music the evening before). I heard several good talks about caring for those in need and lasting conversion. What struck me about a couple of them was the personal approach. One talk was entirely the life story (with ups and downs) of an unnamed person--I'm guessing maybe the speaker himself. And President Carter, before talking about teaching and ministered, talked about his life--about his ambition to do something great but the feelings he and his wife kept having to turn down what might have led to opportunities to be part of the newspaper world in Chicago or work in a major law firm. He said he's come to feel that the seemingly small and simple things in life--raising a family, serving others--can be among the most powerful and meaningful.

I had a brief break before the next session--the 10:00 a.m. general session. I was to be there at 9:30 a.m. to be a greeter at one of the chapel entrances. I loved doing that--greeting people, shaking hands. At the end I got to return to the door and hand out cards with the stake's vision and goals for the year.

The talks were excellent (on self-reliance, conversion, answering difficult questions). President Carter again was a bit personal, talking about the challenges of the past four months (tearing a tendon, the death of a young brother-in-law, having an operation, waking up during a night after the operation in momentary panic, feeling abandoned and hopeless). But for me, some of what made the meeting powerful was the music. Several numbers were done by a choir of Primary children. Those numbers had a supernal spiritual clarity and power. My favorite was one with this chorus:
God gave us families
To help us become what he wants us to be.
This is how he shows his love,
For the family is of God.
Set to music--and with the children's voices and all the thoughts and feelings that poured through me as they sang--this was like a vision from heaven. I felt the truth and power of what was sung through my whole being.

The other number that struck me was a congregational hymn in the middle of the meeting. We stood and sang "How Firm a Foundation," verses 1-5 and 7. This hymn has special meaning to me because we often sing it in family gatherings at my parents-in-law's home, and it's a favorite of my father-in-law, especially the last verse. As I sang it along with hundreds of other people today, my emotions threatened to overwhelm me at several points, and I dug the nails of one hand into my palm to help me focus and keep singing.

Of course, I don't want to embarrass myself by bawling--but I'm grateful that my feelings are tender, that I'm responsive to truth and goodness and beauty, that tears flow as sweet, warm feelings come. Those who know me will attest that I'm a thinker--that logic and analysis are a big part of who I am. But I've increasingly come to feel that knowing truth is more like direct apprehension than analysis. That is, when we see light--when we see objects illuminated by light--when we see and feel the freshness and beauty of the world, we are experiencing reality more truly and fully than when we analyze the experience. Likewise, the feelings we have about truth, about love, about people, about life--the felt insights into what is real and good: this is to experience reality more fully and directly than a logical analysis would provide, whatever the value of such analysis.

After the conference meetings

At the beginning of the 10:00 a.m. session, names were presented for us to sustain (give our approval for) priesthood ordinations. One name presented was Joshua Carter, President Carter's 18-year-old son, to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood and be ordained an Elder. Because I'm the Carters' home teacher--and because until recently I was their bishop--I was invited to take part in the ordination after the end of the stake conference session. It was a sweet event, with both Joshua's mother and his father becoming emotional. I joined the circle as President Carter ordained his son. Afterwards, Joshua and I embraced. I've known him and met with him--and hiked and camped with him--for the past 4 1/2 years, more or less--since he was about 13, I think. So we have a strong bond.

After returning home, I felt I wanted to get down in writing some of what I had experienced during stake conference weekend.

In the spirit of my feeling that I should follow a good impulse when it comes, I interrupted the writing of this blog to Skype with my son Michael, when I noticed he was online. We had a great talk--and since he was visiting my daughter Kaila, I also got to see my grandchildren, Oliver, Alex, and Gabby, and reminisce (among other things) about being present by phone when two of them were born.  (I called from England just as Kaila was giving birth to her first child, Gabby; and my wife and I called from the airport in Beijing, as we prepared to return to the US, just as Alex was being born.)

Later in the afternoon, I visited with my daughter Julie and her boyfriend Travis (they came over so Julie could photograph and digitize an amazing painting we have--a creation of Chiloba Chirwa).  And I did some home teaching--with John Dalley (see above); and upon dropping John off at home, chatted with Leon Harward (a neighbor) about his fishing exploits. He showed me a photo of a 15-pound German brown he caught recently. I'll be heading off soon to spend time with Margaret's parents and extended family, and then I'll spend some time later this evening with my son Rob.

So the magical moments continue. I have plenty of work to do--tasks to be accomplished. And it's important for me to do them, mainly because whether I do will affect the welfare of people. But I hope I leave space open for the promptings of the moment and to enjoy what each moment brings.

Appendix: Stake presidency letter and Stake vision and goals

The stake presidency wrote a letter inviting people to attend Stake Conference. It includes the following paragraphs:
The faith that we have in Jesus Christ can motivate righteous action, help us overcome challenges and give us strength to persevere in obeying god's commandments. Jesus Christ, under direction of His Father, is the Creator. He is the Savior and Redeemer of the entire world. Yet he understands each of us, in our trials and blessings, personally and intimately.
One of the great blessings of our time is the many things and people to testify of Jesus Christ and His gospel. We have the Holy Ghost to guide us in truth. We have scriptures that lead us to Christ. We have modern prophets who receive revelation and teach God's will today. We have the priesthood ordinances, including in the temple, to give us access to eternal covenants and blessings. We are under divine mandate to share these blessings with all of God's children, and we have been asked to lift the poor and needy; comfort the afflicted; teach the gospel in our families; perform vicarious ordinances for our ancestors; and share our testimonies with those around us. In this stake conference, we look forward to rejoicing with you in these opportunities.
Here are the stake vision and goals for 2015:
We are children of God with divine destinies and eternal potential, and we will achieve exaltation in God's Celestial Kingdom, through the Atonement of Christ, as we exercise faith in Jesus Christ, obey the commandments, make and keep sacred covenants through priesthood ordinances and participate in the work of salvation.
Goal No. 1--convert baptisms: Families pray for missionary opportunities, invite friends for meals and FHE.
Goal No. 2--temple ordinances: All youth do temple baptisms and 10 percent of members submit names.
Goal No. 3--gospel teaching: Families teaching gospel in weekly FHE, daily prayer and scripture study.
Goal No. 4--retention: All new converts have calling, friend, and word of God and each ward finds 5 families to bring back to church participation.
Goal No. .5--self-reliance and assisting the poor and needy: Families commit to live the law of the fast.

Friday, November 28, 2014

What makes "Glorious" Mormon (and Mormonism glorious)

I want to start by saying that "Glorious" is a good song--a dang good song.  It's beautifully constructed, engaging, deeply felt, with intelligent, inspiring lyrics.  One indication of its quality is the fact that it still sounds fresh after having enjoyed (or in some cases suffered from) being covered over 400 times in various styles, from country to choral, by performers ranging from a 4-year-old to the PS22 Chorus in Staten Island.  I haven't heard all 400 covers, but I've heard a good number of them.

But I want to focus here on what is "Mormon" about the song.  The song uses no uniquely Mormon language and can be enjoyed even by those who find nothing in it specifically religious.  In fact, when I first heard the song, I wondered where it had come from and whether the writer was a Latter-day Saint.  The more I've listened to it, though, the more I've felt that (whether the writer intended it or not) it beautifully expresses much that is distinctive about Mormonism--much that is not just culturally but doctrinally and spiritually foundational to the living and understanding of life associated with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

That is not to say that it isn't also universal, conveying much that all or most human beings can relate to.  I believe, in fact, that much of what makes the Latter-day Saint understanding of life so powerful and appealing is that it responds to needs and aspirations deeply woven into every human heart.

My reasons for focusing on what is "Mormon" about the song include wanting to understand something about Mormonism and its role in the world.  The song was, after all, selected for the culminating moments of the Church's first venture in releasing a feature film in commercial theaters.  That film, Meet the Mormons, is also a remarkable phenomenon, rising as high as the 9th most successful film at the box office in the United States soon after its release, ranking 11th in the nation during its first weekend (despite a very small turnout on its first Sunday) and 10th in the nation during its first full week. 

  A disclaimer: My wife appears briefly in the first segment of the film.  But I would love the film even without that.  It offers a powerfully authentic portrait of what it is like to be a Latter-day Saint, including the challenges, the joys, the impulse to serve and bless and connect with others, the cultural diversity and sense of community, and the moments of redemption and transcendence.  (You can read my review of the film at and  After segments about six extraordinary--but in some ways typical--Latter-day Saints, we hear David Archuleta singing "Glorious" against a collage of images from the film.  The song serves in some ways as a summary of the film's message, especially the idea that each human being is important and plays a significant role in the symphony of life.

After a little searching, I discovered that the composer of "Glorious" is Stephanie Mabey, a gifted young performer and songwriter with a Latter-day Saint background.  (You can learn more about her work herehere, and here; and you can listen to the original version of "Glorious," her version, at

The song was first popularized (though I only just learned this) by being included on a CD for EFY (Especially for Youth) 2012, where it is sung by Russ Dixon.  (His version is at   I also discovered some of the many covers of the song, many (though not all) of them prompted by David Archuleta's announcement of a competition to appear in a "supercut" of the song--a version that would include bits and pieces from many renditions.  Here's a link to the "supercut":  I'll provide links to other versions below, near the end of this post.

To consider what is "Mormon" about the song (as well as what is universal), let's start with the lyrics:

There are times when you might feel aimless;
You can't see the places where you belong.
But you will find that there is a purpose;
It's been there within you all along
And when you're near it,
You can almost hear it.

It's like a symphony: just keep listening,
And pretty soon you'll start to figure out your part.
Everyone plays a piece, and there are melodies
In each one of us.
Oh, it's glorious.

You will know how to let it ring out
As you discover who you are.
Others around you will start to wake up
To the sounds that are in their hearts.
It's so amazing, what we're all creating.

It's like a symphony: just keep listening,
And pretty soon you'll start to figure out your part.
Everyone plays a piece, and there are melodies
In each one of us.
Oh, it's glorious.

And as you feel the notes build, ah,
You will see:

It's like a symphony: just keep listening,
And pretty soon you'll start to figure out your part.
Everyone plays a piece, and there are melodies
In each one of us.
Oh, it's glorious.

What will strike many as typically "Mormon" about the song is its optimism.  Mormons are known for their positive--some would say naively positive--view of life.  Yet as anyone would know who has any real experience with Latter-day Saints, we are well acquainted with heartache, struggle, and confusion.  It's true that many Latter-day Saints don't realize how many others around them have just the same sorts of struggles they themselves are going through.  Yet these are not problems we refuse to talk about.  There are many ways we can confide in and seek help from others.  And sermons by Church leaders as well as in our local congregations often touch on afflictions and trials and how to deal with them.  What gets us through is genuine faith that there is a God--a perfectly wise and loving God--who is in charge, and hope that everything will work out if we are faithful.

The song captures both the idealism and the realism of the Mormon approach to life.  Yes, we sometimes feel aimless and isolated.  But we believe that if we keep at it, we'll find meaning and connection.  That leads to another set of distinctively Mormon elements in the song: the understanding of life--and even eternal life--as a process, a process of discovery and growth and creation.  In some views, but not the Mormon one, the world is essentially finished: God's creation is complete, and all we can do is accept our place in it--if we can even do that.  The Mormon view is fundamentally different.  Creation is ongoing, and we are taking part in it.  We have been endowed with agency--the ability to choose and act--not simply to accept what is already finished but to participate in the creation of the world, to establish relationships that can be eternal, to take an active part in the divine project of salvation and exaltation.  God has established a perfect plan, but he invites us to take part in bringing that plan to fruition.

"Glorious" celebrates not just the world we live in but the process of discovery and creation that we are invited to engage in.  "You will find that there is a purpose . . . you can almost hear it . . . just keep listening . . . you'll start to figure out your part . . .": all these phrases call to mind the Latter-day Saint understanding of personal revelation, the process of attuning ourselves to God's voice and to the divine meaning woven into the world, a process that requires us to "study it out in our minds" and recognize confirming insight and feelings.  Along with our own individual discoveries, we seek to awaken others--not forcing insight on them, but helping them to hear what is in their own hearts.  The comparison of revelation to music is apt: knowledge is not so much abstract formulation, arrived at as the product of mechanical, rule-driven logic, as it is direct, first-hand recognition of light and truth, something resonating within us, like a voice: "I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost" (Doctrine and Covenants 8:2).

The song also hints at our eternal natures, which in some fundamental way partake of light and truth.  The understanding of purpose and meaning that we seek is somehow within us and always has been: "It's been there within you all along."  For "man is spirit" and "was also in the beginning with God" (Doctrine and Covenants 93:33, 29).  We bring with us something that not only recognizes but contributes to the meaning and beauty of the world.  There are "melodies in each one of us"--spiritual melodies, characteristics deriving from our divine parentage and witnessing to our divine potential.   We are the offspring of God and (as Spencer W. Kimball put it) have within us "the seeds of godhood."  In the words of Lorenzo Snow, "There is the nature of deity in the composition of our spiritual organization; in our spiritual birth our Father transmitted to us the capabilities, powers and faculties which He Himself possessed--as much so as the child on its mother's bosom possesses, although in an undeveloped state, the faculties, powers, and susceptibilities of its parent."  The song is not explicit about all of this, but it certainly affirms our essential spiritual natures.

Yet besides celebrating what is glorious about each of us, the song also celebrates our connection with others.  In fact, the song does not say "we're glorious," but instead "it's glorious": the whole plan, the whole process of ongoing discovery and creation.  It's "amazing, what we're all creating"--all of us, working together.  Each of us has a part, but a part in a symphony in which we seek to join with others in harmony and cooperation.  As you figure out how to let what is within you "ring out," others will also "start to wake up," sense what they can contribute and join in the music.  We all seek to offer the melodies within us to a much larger enterprise, a symphony of creativity, love, and joy.

As often happens with popular songs, people hear words and phrases that are not there.  Many have thought the song "Glorious" says, "Everyone plays a piece in their own melodies," as if the point was for each of us to express our individuality by playing a separate piece.  Someone told me that this led them to imagine cacophony as everybody discovered and played "their own thing."  But that's not what the song says.  "Everyone plays a piece"--end of phrase--"AND there are melodies in each one of us."  Yes, we each contribute something, and it is something that no one else can do in quite the same way.  Yet it is only a "part" of the larger "symphony."  "There are melodies in each one of us," melodies that derive from our spiritual natures and our divine heritage, but we contribute these melodies to a larger tapestry of harmonious sound.  Rightly understood, the song affirms both individuality and community--something essential to the Mormon understanding of life and of eternity.  We believe we are unique and eternal individuals.  Yet our lives have meaning only through relationship with others.  God's purpose is the exaltation of his children, yet that exaltation is brought about not only through the unfolding and transformation of their individual natures but through their being joined together in familial relationships.  In the practical life of Latter-day Saints in this world, there is a similar emphasis both on individual agency and on responsibility and familial and communal connection.

In these and related ways, the song "Glorious" beautifully expresses what might be called the spirit of Mormonism--the sense of engaging in a glorious process of awakening, of self-discovery and communal cooperation, of struggle and hope, of appreciation and creation.  It speaks to the immediate here and now while also opening us to a vision of eternity--in fact, suggesting that eternity is unfolding within the here and now.  In all of these ways and in all of these dimensions, "it"--including the world, our lives, our relationships, our eternal prospects--is "glorious."


 Having said all of this, I recognize that not all of this is utterly unique to Mormonism and that much of what I find in the song may be different from what others will find.  (By the way, the term "Mormonism" isn't used much these days--but I've found it a useful shorthand for the view of life widely shared by Latter-day Saints and affirmed by our scriptures and other authoritative sources of doctrine.)  Still, though not entirely unique, the tone and ideas expressed in "Glorious" have as a whole a distinctly Mormon flavor, and at least some of what the song expresses and implies comes close to being unique to Mormonism.

That is not to say that there isn't much that is glorious in other understandings of life--Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, Judaism, Buddhism, to name a few.  And in fact, there is much overlap among these various approaches to life, as well as distinctive insights in each that can contribute to a deeper and richer vision of the complex diversity of human experience and of what lies beyond current human experience and understanding.  But I've chosen to emphasize what is distinctive and glorious about Mormonism because it is the view I know best--and because I believe it has its roots in divine revelation--and also because I'm writing about a song that I believe is attuned in many ways to the Mormon understanding of things, especially when heard or sung by those familiar with that understanding.

Now, a couple of personal notes and then links to some of my favorite covers of the song "Glorious."

As I mentioned earlier, David Archuleta sings the song near the end of the movie Meet the Mormons.  So far I've seen the film three times, and each time I've felt the song beautifully sums up the film's message of service, relationship, love, faith, and individual worth.  You can hear this rendition, along with clips of scenes from the film at (I've also embedded it further below).

A few weeks after the film came out, my son Michael was skyping with my wife and me and shared a link to another version of the song, one  sung by the One Voice Children's Choir. The song spoke to him, he said, because he's trying to find his part in the symphony of life--a part that will allow him to serve and bless other people. We were touched by those feelings that came from our son's beautiful heart--and we were also moved by the One Voice Children's Choir's performance.  Part of what makes that performance so powerful is that individual members of the choir sing various parts of the song--yet they all come together as a group as well.  As individuals sing, we focus on their beautiful, divinely beautiful, faces.  But we also hear them join together in glorious harmony.  You can listen and watch at

Having heard that version, we began to run into yet others including eventually the "fan supercut" that combines various renditions (  Among the dozens of versions I've listened to, some are much better done than others.  Yet something apart from the quality of the performances has touched me as I've listened.  Part of what has drawn me to the many covers of "Glorious" is the way so many of them open windows into the inner lives of individuals and families--their loves, their yearnings, their struggles.  Many of those who submitted covers are young, very young--many between 8 and 18, not to mention the 4 and 6 year olds. I see in them such profound goodness and longing. The song seems to provide many of them a way of expressing their hopes and desires and connecting with others.  Hearing them give voice to the song has given me a glimpse into their spiritual natures, into what in each of them is precious and eternal and associated with divinity.

While I love many of the renditions--and will share some of my favorites in a playlist below--I want to focus on the "fan supercut" for a moment because it reveals another distinctive element of Mormonism: the desire to reach out to, and celebrate, and connect the entire human family.  Though the film Meet the Mormons has been shown only in the United States so far, the invitation to do a cover of the song "Glorious" reached far beyond the nation's borders.  There were responses from Latin America, Caribbean islands, Asia, and Europe.  Among those chosen for use in the "fan supercut" were contributors from Canada, China, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines, and Vietnam, as well as the United States.  Among participants from the United States, there was some attempt at ethnic and stylistic diversity.  The finished product deliberately used contributions that would reflect the diversity among Latter-day Saints--and in the human family--including a 4-year-old, many teenagers, and a few older adults.  In addition, the fan supercut included two covers performed by signing for the deaf.  (They didn't choose my favorite sign language performance, though, one by a young deaf girl: see

In a similar way, the film tells the stories of a variety of Latter-day Saints: an African-American bishop in Atlanta (that's the segment in which my wife appears); the coach (of Samoan extraction) of the Navy football team; a mother (and kick boxer) in Costa Rica; an American pilot, known as the "candy bomber," who helped sustain West Berliners during the 1949 airlift; another man, a native Nepalese, who does humanitarian work in Nepal; and (in the most moving, heart-wrenching segment) a woman who, after rough years as a single mom, now has a beautiful family and is sending her oldest son on a mission.  The film includes scenes in Costa Rica, Germany, Nepal, South Africa, and various parts of the United States--including the White House.  The film's cinematography is superb: there are stunning scenes from around the world, reminded us that God's creations are indeed glorious.

Some might cynically suggest that this emphasis on diversity is a public relations ploy.  But in reality it is a fundamental element of Mormonism.  It is an essential teaching of the Church that we are all members of God's universal family, that we are all brothers and sisters.  The Church has been commanded from the beginning to share the gospel with the entire world.  We believe that God's plan of salvation provides a way for all the human family to be saved--those who have lived before Christ as well as after, and those who never heard the gospel message in life as well as those who did.  Though we have done so imperfectly, it has been the impulse of Latter-day Saints as a people to respect and love and connect with people of all nations.  A few years ago I re-read (this time in French) a book highly respected by Latter-day Saints, the book Jesus the Christ, first published in the early twentieth century.  I was pleased to find in the book a strong emphasis on universal outreach and on the belief that "God is no respecter of persons."  So this is not a new idea among Latter-day Saints.

In fact, our scriptures express the idea clearly: "Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men?" (2 Nephi 29:7); "the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word" (Alma 29:8).  The Book of Mormon teaches that God invites all to come to him: "all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden"; "he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; . . . and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile" (2 Nephi 26:28, 33).  This clear statement of God's universal love for his children is one reason many Latter-day Saints felt uncomfortable with the racial restrictions that formerly operated in the Church and rejoiced when they were lifted.

That sense that we are sharing life together, that we are "members of one another," is also expressed in the song "Glorious."  All that is said there is true, by implication, for every human being: "Everyone plays a piece, and there are melodies in each one of us."  The film too expresses this view and affirms that we all have a part to play in this exciting and often challenging adventure in which we are all taking part.

(Another Meet the Mormons Trailer)


Here are two of the versions I mentioned above, plus one other, one of my favorites, performed by the PS22 Chorus of Staten Island, New York--another evidence of the wide appeal of the song.

David Archuleta (with clips from the film Meet the Mormons):

One Voice Children's Choir:

Finally, I'm going to link you to a playlist with a few other of my favorites. Here it is:

Friday, November 7, 2014

When I turned 64: The Great Beatles Party

My wife and I have been talking for years about what would happen when I turn 64.  Of course, it would have to be a Beatles party.  Well, the party took place this past Monday, November 3, 2014.

Margaret planned the event, invited lots of people, prepared food, and served as the hostess.  I helped too.  I couldn't restrain myself.  I created a playlist of my favorite 64 Beatles songs, came up with ideas for Beatles themed foods, and created a quiz--only part of which we had time for on the evening in question.

And then it happened.  The official tally of people who came is 52.  Three came only briefly, and not everyone was there at the same time.  But most were.  So we had over 40 people in our home for a couple of hours.

As people came, we asked them to identify the food items in the dining room, living room, and kitchen by Beatles song and album or otherwise guess why they were relevant.  We also asked them to cast a "secret ballot" indicating their favorite Beatle, their favorite Beatles song and album, and their least favorite Beatles song and album.  (A few people refused to pick a least favorite album, or said they didn't have one.)  I originally had the ballot ask people to pick their two favorite Beatles songs, but then when I tried to fill it out myself, after starting with 15 favorites and narrowing it to eight, I finally couldn't bear to list fewer than five favorites.  So I changed the ballots to allow everyone to pick up to five.

About a half hour after the official start time of 7:00 p.m., I asked everyone to gather and find out the Beatles-related meaning of all the food items.  Someone in the group knew the answers to just about all the questions I asked (actually, most of the answers came from three or four people who had crammed lots of Beatles information into their heads)--except for the question, "Why do we have 64 candles on a pie instead of a cake?"  The fairly obvious part of the answer is that I was turning 64 and that we were thinking of the song "When I'm 64."  But why a pie?

Phil Snyder (a friend of many years and currently the chair of BYU's English Department) reminded everyone that Paul McCartney had an album titled Flaming Pie.  OK . . . he was on the right track.  But where did that title come from?  As a very select group of readers may know, the answer is this.  In 1961 John Lennon explained in an interview where the name "Beatles" had come from:
It came in a vision--a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, "from this day on you are Beatles with an A."

After revealing the meaning of the food items, we had a blessing on the food (offered by Mary Elwood, an amazing lady who lives in the neighborhood) and got people eating.  Some had already partaken of treats that were set around the rooms in various spots: peanuts, truffles, dark chocolate coconut almond candies, apples, and tangerines.

But it was time now for the main dishes: rice, scrambled eggs, gluten free spaghetti, red pepper in a bed of humus and parsley (more on what that was all about below).  We also had two kinds of herbal tea: mint and vanilla hazelnut--neither of which many people had because we got so busy socializing that we failed to uncover the containers.  Other items that none or few partook of were pepper, mustard, and orange marmalade.

But there were quite a few takers for the remaining sweets: strawberry pie; another pie made from vanilla pudding, chocolate bars, and marshmallows; cookies made from cornflakes; and boxes of chocolates Margaret got from See's but patterned after the British product known as Mackintosh's Good News.  (More on that later.)

So . . just to whet your appetite:

What do scrambled eggs have to do with anything?

Which song mentions lemonade?

Five songs mention tea; can you name them?

Which song mentions peanuts?

Which song mentions rice?

Which two songs have a connection with Kellogg's Cornflakes?

And how about marshmallow pie? marmalade? tangerines (connected with two songs)? truffles? strawberries? apples?

Which songs mention honey?

And can you think of anything spaghetti would have to do with the Beatles?

For answers, see The Beatles themed food items link below.

(By the way, our daughter Jules and her boyfriend Travis noticed we were a bit thin in the main dish department and went out and got a bunch of pizzas.  This pleased many, especially some of the young people.)

In the background through much of the evening, I had my playlist of 64 favorite Beatles songs playing.  We never got around to the rest of my quiz or to counting the ballots and announcing the results.  (But the results will be revealed later in this post!)

But we did have one other major activity.  My son Robert--also a Beatles fan and quite well informed--decided to get me a present, one of the kind that keeps on giving: Beatles Rock Band for Xbox.  (It's his Xbox, so I don't know what we'll do when he moves.)  So part of our sizable congregation went downstairs to sing along with the Beatles.  I was busy saying goodbye to those who had to leave--including an unhappy 8-year-old who had not gotten a turn with the singing downstairs.  So I promised him and his family--the Westovers (including Paul, a colleague and friend of mine who is remarkably knowledgeable about the Beatles, especially considering that he's a long ways away from being 64)--that we would invite them over for a Beatles Rock Band session sometimes in the near future.

Among those who attended were colleagues from BYU, members of our local church congregation (for which I'm still serving as bishop), and relatives.  (I'll provide a link to a full list below.)  One family weren't able to spend as much time with us as they (and we) would have liked because they performed a special service for us: they picked up our former foster son, Tyrece Traylor, from the care center where he staying and had to get him back there back a predetermined hour.  The family I'm referring to are the Kennedys: Sheila and Branden and their sons T. J. and Justice.  It was great having them at least for part of the evening, along with Tyrece, who had lots of fun--including time with the Beatles Rock Band downstairs.

Something else important happened (upstairs) before the party ended.  Among the relatives who attended were nieces and nephews and several siblings-in-law (Dell Blair, Jen Lambert, and Traci Blair).  Along with Traci, was her daughter Sophie, who (at age 16) is just about as big a Beatles fan as I am at 64.  I had asked her to bring her ukulele and sing for us.  She insisted on having us join her in singing, which made it all the more fun.  I believe she started with "Yesterday."  I don't remember if she did anything else--except to accompany a special number that had been prepared by the Sabeys--nephews and (in some cases) their spouses: Brian and Dia (they also brought their infant child Zina [short for Alsina]), Josh and Sarah, and Matt (not married--but he distinguished himself at the party by making me a guitar out of balloons, i.e., a genuine "air guitar").  They had written a song that they sang to the tune of "Yellow Submarine":
In a town known as Provo Lives a man we all adore,
And we'll tel l you of his life Now that he has reached age 64.
Well he studied in the East till he gained a few degrees,
Wed his student, had some kids, Now he's past age 63! 
Chorus: We're all glad Bruce has past age 63, past age 63, past age 63.
We're all glad Bruce has past age 63, past age 63 happily. 
And his wife is still on board! he has lots of friends around the world,
And the karaoke plays (do do do do do doo do doo do do do do do do do do do!) 
Though it's not a life of ease--Every spare second spent bishoping--
He will be forever Young, though he's past age 63! 
All right, yes, very clever.  But more than that, I felt amazingly blessed to have these beautiful young people (each averaging about a third of my age) showering me with wit and affection.  I felt surrounded by the warmth of their love.

As the evening wound down a bit, I took a turn going downstairs, and joined Jules, Travis, the Elwoods, and Traci and Sophie in singing with the Beatles.  At least one other friend was downstairs--Yoko Stevenson--and yes, she is named after Yoko Ono.  She told us that, unfortunately, she needed to leave--and so I started singing, "I don't want to spoil the party so I'll go . . ."  (Again, I'm tempted to say I couldn't help myself.)

My singing of "I don't want to spoil the party . . ." was without accompaniment (I don't think it's on the Beatles Rock Bank list).  But soon I took my turn singing along with the Beatles.  I sang "When I'm 64" and am delighted to say that, having set the bar at the "expert" level, got a score of 98%.  I got a bit lower on other songs, partly because I wasn't very good at the oohs and ahs and yelling and general silliness that comes in the final stretch of several of them.

As we passed 9:30 and parents started persuading the remaining young people they needed to get home, it was clear the party would finally have to end.  Margaret and I were left with lots of leftovers and lots of good memories.

On the left: I'm ready to blow out 64 candles; guests in the background.
On the right: My daughter Jules checks out my tummy; I'm wearing the Sgt. Pepper's shirt gifted me by the Snyders.


For more details, check the following links:

The playlist of my 64 favorite Beatles songs​ 
(and for a list of the songs:

The fabulous 52 people who attended

The Beatles themed food items (including items mentioned above and others):  (Among other things, you'll find out more about Mackintosh's Good News chocolates--and whatever we . . .or I should say Margaret . . . made out of a red pepper, humus, and parsley.)

The rest of the Beatles quiz (the part I didn't actually get around to asking):

The results of the "secret ballot" (favorite Beatle, favorite Beatles songs and albums, and least favorite Beatles songs and albums--and besides getting the overall results for the group, you'll find out what MY votes were):

For those who don't want to go to the trouble of getting the FULL results, here are partial results:

(1) Favorite Beatle: Paul won by a landslide (13 out of 25 votes)

(2) Favorite Beatles songs: The winner was "Eleanor Rigby," followed by "Here Comes the Sun," "Let It Be," "Hey Jude," "Blackbird," and five other songs that tied for 6th place ("Penny Lane," "Something," "A Hard Day's Night," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and "I Will").

(3) Favorite Beatles albums: The winner was Abbey Road, followed by Revolver and three others that tied (Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper's, and Let It Be).  Interesting results.  In the post that accompanies the full results, I ponder why I think the results are a bit skewed--meaning distorted a bit by many voters' lack of thorough knowledge of all the albums.

(4) Least favorite Beatles song: The clear winner was "Revolution 9" (on the "White Album")--which, as someone pointed out, is not really a song.  There was no clear consensus for second place, though one odd result (explored if you follow the "secret ballot" link above) was that some songs had votes as both favorite and least favorite.  Someone also pointed out that most of the votes were for well-known songs that people didn't care for.  Only those who know all 211 songs we have listed on the ballot might be aware of how bad a few of the more obscure songs are.

(5) Least favorite Beatles albums: Again there was a clear "winner"--Yellow Submarine.  The only problem is that it's not really an album in the sense the others are.  It has only four new songs, repeats two from other albums, and then has orchestral music by George Martin.  I should probably have asked what your least favorite album is other than Yellow Submarine.

As you may have noticed, only 25 of our 52 guests cast ballots.  I guess that's a fairly good percentage as far as midterm elections go.  I have to say that the group's votes don't exactly match mine--I'm referring to the ballots cast at the party, not the actual midterm election that took place the following day (though I wasn't entirely happy with the results of that election either).  But to learn how I voted (in the Beatles "secret ballot"), you'll have to go the link listed above.

Finally, some related links:

Margaret has already published a post about the party on her nationally known "Welcome Table" blog. See

I also noticed that about a year ago, shortly before my 63rd birthday, I had another Beatles post--a fun one playing with song titles:

And then there's the Stake Picnic Beatles interview from many years ago:

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Young Women's Camp 2014

One of the great pleasures of my life has been attending bits and pieces of Stake Young Women's Camp over the years, usually held at Camp MIA Shalom near Fairview, Utah, about an hour and a half from where I live.  The week-long camping experience is organized and run by the women of the stake--including many of the young women--and includes fun, craziness, music, adventure, and spiritual peace and power.

This year I got to attend as the bishop of my ward.  I was invited to make it in time for lunch on Wednesday, July 2, take part in a hike, followed by dinner, help present a skit, and then join with the leaders and young women from our ward in a testimony meeting around a campfire.  Several years I have brought cobbler I've made for this last event, but this time I brought Klondike bars.

The hike was lots of fun.  We did geocaching--my first time doing that.  We were given the coordinates, along with hints, and then (using GPS devices) needed to find ammo boxes, each of which contained a log book for us to sign, stickers, and a story to read.

Each box was associated with one of the Young Women values (faith, divine nature, individual worth, knowledge, choice and accountability, good works, integrity, and virtue).  The story in each box had to do with one of the values and was printed on paper of the color associated with the value.  We left candy in each of the boxes, the idea being that the candy would be of the color associated with the box's value.  (There's actually a Wikipedia article explaining all of this: )

In the evening everyone from Provo Utah Central Stake gathered for singing and other activities--including skits performed by the bishoprics of each ward.

There are currently 6 wards--geographical divisions of the stake: Pioneer 1st, Pioneer 2nd, Pioneer 4th (that's the ward of which I'm bishop), Pioneer 5th (aka Pionero quinto, the Spanish-speaking ward), Rivergrove 1st, and Rivergrove 2nd.  The other skits including a clever one based on the Studio C "Lobster Bisque" routine, off-key singing accompanied by throwing candy, singing "Cielito Lindo" with everyone joining in the chorus, pie throwing, and an amazing magic act.

I was the only bishopric member from my ward able to come, so I recruited Brian Grimsman, one of our Young Men leaders who had come for the day.  I told him while we were driving to the camp.  (He drove; the others in the car included me, Brian's wife Cody, and Courtney Bulsiewicz.)  We thought there was a chance my first counselor, Mike Hoffman, would make it, but he wasn't able to.  But it turns out Brother Grimsman was a godsend--he is a natural ham, and he does an expert job at saying "lobster bisque" in the bizarre Studio C pronunciation we needed for the skit.  For any who are curious, I've copied the skit at the end of this post.

After the evening's entertainment, we gathered as ward groups.  We built a fire, I shared Klondike bars, and then I gave a brief message (about how perfection is a process that will continue even after this life, and that we must be "patient until [we] are perfected").  Then we had a testimony meeting in which everyone said something.  It was dark by the time we finished (about 9:40 p.m.), and those of us who were not staying the night got ready to leave.  (They close the gates at 10pm.)  And I arrive home about 11:20pm.

I have lots of fun photos on Facebook, which you'll find by following this link: (I hope this works--even for people who are not my "friends.")

Here--for your enjoyment and illumination--is the skit Brian Grimsman and I performed:

[It began with me speaking:] I’m not sure we’re really following the rules: we sort of forgot about the skit until last night; one of my counselors is out of town for the summer, and the other wasn’t able to come.  So this is not a member of the bishopric; it’s one of our Young Men leaders, Brian Grimsman.  Anyway, we decided to do a skit about coming up with our skit; so imagine us last night trying to decide what to do.

(B=me, Bruce Young; G=Brian Grimsman)

G: So what should we do for our skit?

B: Well, you know I teach Shakespeare, and there are lots of funny things in Shakespeare.

G: I'm not sure that would work for Young Women’s camp.  You know, the language, and explaining the story, and all that.

B: I think you're right, unfortunately.
Hey, I know.  Back in 1997 at a Stake Picnic, I did a skit with my son, who was 10 years old at the time,
and he interviewed me and I answered every question with the title of a Beatles song. 
You’ve heard of the Beatles, right? 

G: Yeah. [we should have had him say: yeah, yeah, yeah]

B: I happen to be an expert on the Beatles.

G: No, I don't think that would work.  That is so YESTERDAY.

B: (singing) Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away. 
(speaking) Seriously, I think I could pull it off--with a little help from my friends.
Get it? No?  Ok. So what do we do.

G: We could tell jokes.

B: My wife tells me I'm really awful at tellinig jokes.

G: OK.  But . . . do you know any jokes?

B: Sort of.   OK--you know what a kleptomaniac is?  I ask because I told this joke at stake youth conference and nobody got it.

G: A kleptomaniac is a compulsive thief, somebody who is always stealing things.

B: OK. And you know what a pun is, right?

G: Of course.

B: Something with a double meaning, right?  OK.  So do you know why you should not use puns with kleptomaniacs?

G: No, why?

B: Because they're always taking things, literally.  Literally, right? [BTW, this joke was apparently the creation of my nephew Brian Sabey.]

G: Uh, yes.  I think you kind of explained the joke a little bit too much.  Speaking of "literally," though, have you ever heard of Captain Literally on Studio C?

B: Yes.  Oh, that’s perfect.  We could rip off a skit from Studio C.  I hear another of the bishoprics is planning on doing that.

G: Yeah, that could work.

B: You know my wife is actually friends with Mallory.

G: Is she on Studio C?

B: yes.  She’s actually been in our house, literally.  (Oops, sorry.) 

G: So which skit could we rip off?

B: Well, one of my favorites is the one about lobster bisque.  Lobster beh-issk.  I can’t say that very well. [BTW, it turns out Brian Grimsman knows the Studio C skit and can say “lobster bisque” just like the actor on that show.]

G: OK.

B: Actually ... this is really true ... I was at Zupas the other day, and I actually said: Do you have have lobster beh-issk. [Every time I was supposed to say this, I pointed to Brother Grimsman, and he said the word.]  And they said yes.  And then they said they also had mushroom bisque too.  So I asked them if they had different kinds of mushroom beh-isssk.  And they said, no, they had only one kind.  And the guy behind the counter, the server, said—seriously, he literally . . . I mean, he actually said this: we only have one kind, and we don’t have any bisque made with poisonous mushrooms.

G: Well, you know the poison cooks out, right?

B: I’m not sure it really does.

G: OK.  Well.  So what are we going to do for the skit?  It looks like we can’t pull off a scene from Shakespeare, we’re not very good at telling jokes, Beatles songs will probably go over their heads, and if we do Studio C, they’ll just think about how much better those guys are than we are.

B: Well, maybe we could try bribing the judges. [Another bishopric had thrown candy at both the audience and the judges as a kind of “bribe,” so this was an allusion to them.] Anyway, it says here (in this letter from the stake Young Women’s presidency) that the young women like to see their leaders having fun.

G: I think that maybe means making fools of themselves.

B: All right.  I have an idea.  Let’s do rock-paper-scissors, and then just one of us has to make a fool of himself.


[rock-paper-scissors; the loser does a trick]

[I lost and did a “magic trick,” using my fingers as rings that got interlinked and then unlinked, while Brother Grimsman provided musical background.]

[Afterwards, the panel of “judges”—several of the Young Women—grilled me, mostly about whether I really thought they were not up to understanding the Beatles or Shakespeare, and I assured them I knew that they and everybody else there knew all about those things.  We were just short on time to prepare anything.  Unbeknownst to me, while I was trying to butter up the judges, Brother Grimsman was behind me, pantomiming the action of shoveling—I guess suggesting I was digging myself a deeper hole, or more likely that I was piling it higher and deeper.  Anyway, his action had people in stitches and probably helped ensure our 3rd place finish..  That and—as I later learned—the fact that I was so much more relaxed than they had remembered me being last year.  Which was true.]


One final note: For any who are curious about Studio C, here's a link:

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Syria, Partisanship, and The West Wing

My wife and I are on our second time through The West Wing, a television series about the hypothetical presidency of Josiah Bartlet.  Several episodes in season 4, which we’re currently watching, deal with genocide in the fictional African country of Kundu and culminate in the declaration of the Bartlet doctrine—that the US will intervene for humanitarian reasons, not just when threatened directly—and in President Bartlet’s decision to send troops to Kundu to stop the violence.

Besides the series itself, two recent occurrences made me think of parallels between The West Wing and the current situation in Syria.  One was a remark made by a local commentator on KSL radio last night (Sept. 10) after President Obama’s speech on Syria.  The commentator said the current situation “is like an episode of The West Wing.”  The other is a moment in one of the television episodes when President Bartlet asks rhetorically, “Why is a Kundunese life worth less to me than an American life?” A speech writer named Will Bailey responds: “I don’t know, sir, but it is.”  On the evening of President Obama’s speech I heard a national commentator make a similar remark.  He noted that the President, trying to persuade the nation to take action, had described the horrific suffering and death in Syria, including that of children.  The commentator said that Americans are a compassionate people but that the children who are suffering and dying are Syrian children, not American children.  Hence our relative lack of enthusiasm for helping them.

An image of some West Wing characters
(Pres. Bartlet is at the center, Will Bailey at the far right)

It has been interesting that so many, including many who enthusiastically supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, have opposed taking military action in Syria.  Perhaps Americans have become war weary.  Perhaps we have learned something from the mixed results of these earlier adventures.  I suspect that some are inclined to criticize and oppose anything President Obama does, no matter what it is.  (I realize that many on the left did the same to Bush during his presidency.  I didn't, and I'm not happy with those who did.)  I happen to be on the e-mail lists of both left-wing and right-wing political action groups, and so it has been interesting to get messages from both sides opposing strikes on Syria.  The right-wing messages have been especially vociferous, claiming that the President, acting with ulterior motives, is “taking over TV” to sell his plan and sending out his “minions” to make the case for war.  The group sending these messages reports that 97.5% of its members oppose strikes on Syria.  Just eight years ago, this same group called opponents of the war in Iraq “reprehensible” and condemned them as unpatriotic for sending a message that “Americans are losing their will to fight.”  They organized pro-war demonstrations to counter anti-war protests.

The world of politics is nothing if not filled with paradox and irony.  I’ve been pleased to see Republicans who strongly supported war in Iraq now argue against military action and in favor of patient diplomacy—though I can’t help remembering that calls for much more serious action in Iraq, and with much less solid justification, were accepted by virtually all Republican politicians and by perhaps 80% of the nation. I also recall how often, over the past ten years or more, the traditional preference for diplomacy by Democrats has been decried by Republicans as naive and weak.  Current arguments that action against Syria is not required by our immediate national interest could also have been used against our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq—and indeed against many US military actions over the past century.  I accept as valid the argument that strikes on Syria may be dangerous and produce unintended negative consequences—an argument made by any number of both liberal and conservative commentators and political cartoons.  Yet when the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, similar dangers were largely ignored.

Whatever our partisan bias and whether we support military action in Syria, I hope we can agree that Syrian children matter as much as American children and that something must be done to respond to the terrible things happening in Syria.  In an article that will soon appear in a book titled Latter-day Saints and Contemporary Issues, I argue in favor of peace and against war, except in the most extreme circumstances.  But I acknowledge that sometimes war may be necessary to prevent horrific violence and suffering:
Perhaps another condition that might justify intervention is a breakdown of civil order that threatens innocent lives.  As thousands have been slaughtered in Rwanda, Darfur, and elsewhere in recent years, I have wondered whether nations working together could have done more, including the use of armed force, to prevent bloodshed.
At the same time, I argue that our discussions of war and peace ought to be peaceable, especially when we have been invited as Latter-day Saints to “be one” and to value our brothers and sisters of all nations.  As I conclude in my essay:
We must “renounce war and proclaim peace” in our personal lives as well as in nations and the world at large.  We must do so not only by seeking peaceful solutions to world problems but by being peaceable in all our relationships and our communications.
(The entire essay may be found online at

The situation in Syria is both horrifying and complicated.  It is not only natural but useful for there to be different views on what we ought to do.  We need a national dialogue on the subject, but it ought to be one that involves listening as well as speaking and respect and humility rather than name calling and scoring partisan points at any cost.  I am heartened that a diplomatic solution may be found to at least one element of the complicated conflict in Syria.  I am hopeful that diplomatic efforts will be successful.  In the meantime, I am also hopeful that we can all summon up as much humility, honesty, intelligence, compassion, and goodwill as we are capable of and engage in productive, civil conversation on this and other vital issues.  The problems we face are serious.  We are much more likely to find solutions if we can somehow learn to work together.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"The Miracle of Faith, The Miracle of Love" Revisited

Note: In 1986 I wrote an essay titled "The Miracle of Faith, The Miracle of Love: Some Personal Reflections" that was published as part of the book A Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief by Mormon Scholars, edited by Philip Barlow.  A few years ago, Phil asked for addenda to the essays to be published as part of a reissuing of the book.  I wasn't satisfied with what I wrote in response to that request, in part because I was going through a bit of a dry spell, and by the time the reissuing was supposed to take place, I wanted to express my thoughts differently.  Fortunately for me (though maybe not so happily for the project), publication was delayed by several years.  So I was able to completely rewrite my addendum.  The original essay may be found at  Here is the addendum:

This essay has had an interesting afterlife.  I have regularly given copies to my students, numbering now, after 30 years of teaching, in the thousands.  My wife has had students in many of her classes read the essay.  For a time, the English Department at BYU gave copies to graduate students who were marrying.  And for a time, the essay was part of a collection used in BYU’s Honors writing classes.  Those who have read the essay have sometimes passed on copies to others.  I’ve even gotten e-mail requests for copies from strangers.

Given its wide distribution, I’ve wondered about its effect on readers.  The essay has a double focus: religious faith and the miracle of love, including the way it can bring two people together in marriage.  Some readers have found the essay helpful in overcoming their resistance to a relationship of closeness and commitment.  Some who have felt quite ready for such a relationship have shared the essay with a friend or a “significant other” who was hesitant.  Occasionally my wife and I have attended a wedding reception where the bride or groom has said, “Thank you so much for that essay!” 

Hearing such words, I’ve always felt a little nervous, hoping that any marriages that have been encouraged by the essay have been good ones, have thrived and lasted.  I’ve been consoled, though, when I’ve remembered that the essay acknowledges the difficulties that come with marriage and with life in general—“the antagonism” that “springs from fears and dark fantasies” and that can lead to resentment, hostility, and blindness; the tendency so many of us have to resist intimacy and love; the fact that “good things must often come through a process of struggle and disappointment and patient waiting” and that “Some things some of us desire will not come at all in this life.”

The essay also deals with the broader question of self-doubt—the worries so many have about their capacity for happiness and for love.  To that aspect of the essay, a common response I’ve gotten from students and other readers is this: “How did you know what I was thinking and feeling?  How have you managed to describe feelings that I thought were intensely and uniquely mine?”  My answer has been that apparently we all share similar fears and doubts.  If I’ve described them accurately, that’s because I chose to be as honest and open as I could about what I myself had experienced.  I felt compelled to make that choice once I took on the task of writing about realities as powerful and sacred as faith and love.

A few readers have not felt this kinship with the feelings I’ve described.  I remember one smart, ambitious young man who said, “Everybody else seems to be able to relate to what you’ve written.  I don’t.”  Several years later I saw him again, and he told me he had changed his mind about the essay.  He now felt it spoke to his own inner experience because he had now encountered and lived through the kind of challenges the essay describes.

Besides marriage and the problem of self-doubt, the essay deals with other challenges that life brings to thoughtful human beings, including the question of whether there is any essential or eternal meaning or purpose to it all and, specifically for Latter-day Saints, whether the things our beliefs point to are in fact real.  Is there a wise and loving God who concerns himself with us?  Is there a plan of happiness that offers access to fulfillment in this life and to an eternity of joy and progress?  Are the instruments by which God brings about his purposes—his divine Son, his Church, the ordinances and covenants of his gospel—truly and reliably his?  Is divine power available to assist us in dealing with suffering, loss, and discouragement and in overcoming what seem the most appalling and massive of obstacles to happiness and love: namely, death—our own and that of loved ones—and evil in the world and in ourselves?

The point of the essay is that the evidence in favor of all of the positive realities is abundant, but that we must open our eyes and hearts to the evidence and be willing to trust in it.  I find myself attracted to the idea, proposed by Terryl Givens and others, that the evidence for and against the restored gospel is about evenly divided, precisely so that we will be able to exercise faith freely and not be compelled to believe.  Intellectually, this idea makes a lot of sense.  At the same time, I find myself persuaded daily, once I open my eyes to it, that I am always surrounded by evidence of the reality of joy, love, goodness, and beauty.  Whatever difficulties my mind has in making sense of the complexities of the world around me, I am struck by the immense and absolute reality of my own existence and that of others, by the sense that there is profound meaning to our struggles and yearnings and hopes, and by the likelihood, at once astonishing and reassuring, that there is something enduringly meaningful in our lives and in the universe in which we are living them.

This essay was first published a year after I was married.  Since then my experience of life has included years of reflection, study, Church service, and professional work, with its accomplishments and disappointments.  It has also included the blessings and challenges, some of them heart-wrenching, that have come with marriage and family life.  I have learned from marriage and parenthood that I am not always as nice a person as I had supposed—in fact, that in many ways, I am deeply flawed.  I have learned through experiences that have embedded it in the core of my being what I had already believed in theory: that love is far more than pleasant or excited feelings, that it demands active and determined commitment and caring, even when I don’t feel like it.  I have learned that humility and repentance are essential.  More than just words or themes for talks, these have become the daily necessities of facing myself and my behavior, feeling the pain of my failures, including the harm I have inflicted on others, and seeking to undergo deep change.

Such experiences have modified and deepened my understanding of the issues taken up in the essay.  Yet in general I still happily affirm the essay’s main argument and in fact affirm it with greater confidence, based on years of living and testing it.  Faith—trust in and openness to the possibility of good things—is required for happiness and fulfillment; it provides the grounds for loving relationships; it “is the power to see, to choose, to act, and to enjoy, and . . . requires an abandonment of narrow certainties, preconceptions, defenses, and fears.”  As we step forward prior to full understanding, faith enables us “to see things that are real and good and then to have those things become fully real in our lives.”

In fact, in the years since the essay was published, at some moments when I have struggled with difficult issues or circumstances, I have reread my own words almost as if they were written by someone else and have found them helpful and comforting.  Despite flaws in the writing—some wordiness, perhaps too abstract, complicated, and inwardly focused an approach—I have found that the essay succeeds in opening my eyes and heart both to a hope in future possibilities and to an awareness of present realities, to the goodness and beauty and preciousness of the world and people and spiritual realities that surround me.

I confess that in the years that have passed since the essay was published I have not always felt as affirmative as I sound in the essay.  My moral and spiritual state and often simply my moods—feelings of worry or exhaustion or antagonism—have had a profound impact on the degree to which I’ve been able to enjoy the Spirit and experience spiritual things as real.

Yet through the difficult stretches when I’ve felt spiritually out of tune, I’ve taken comfort in C. S. Lewis’s idea (expressed in The Screwtape Letters) that it is in our times of spiritual dryness that we most truly choose, that when we look “around upon a universe from which every trace of [God] seems to have vanished,” and ask why we have been forsaken but still obey, we are then especially “growing into the sort of creature He wants [us] to be.”

I am, at least when I am most honest and humble, more open to possibilities than I was when I first wrote this essay—more open to different ways of seeing and understanding and explaining and to the limitations of my present understanding—and at the same time more deeply, firmly convinced of certain basic things.  Both intellectual study and spiritual witnesses have assured me of the inspiration and authenticity of the scriptures, including the Book of Mormon.  I am confident of the truth of the doctrines of the restored gospel about who we are and what we can become.  I am grateful to witness the exciting unfolding of God’s work for the blessing of his children.  I believe that the entire human family are brothers and sisters of divine parentage and that our calling as members of the Church is to love and bless all of God’s children. 
I am aware of the human limitations and imperfections of Church members and leaders, all the more from having served in positions of leadership myself.  Yet I am certain of the sincerity and goodness and am grateful for the love and willingness to sacrifice and serve demonstrated by many members and leaders of the Church.  I have witnessed instances of undeniable inspiration and spiritual power.  I am confident that the Church is being led by divine inspiration, that we are as a people making progress toward what God expects us to become, and that enormous good is being done to bless God’s children around the world.  I’ve seen the Church at work as I’ve taken part in memorable sacrament meetings in London, Paris, Beijing, and Patzicia in highland Guatemala; as I’ve traveled with my family through the Baltic states when my father-in-law was serving as mission president; as we’ve spent a year in the LDS community of Laie, Hawaii; and as we’ve communicated with missionaries serving around the world—all of this in addition to powerful general and regional Church meetings, meetings in my home ward and stake, and other gatherings and events, powerful not only in what I’ve felt but in the ways my mind and heart have been stretched.  My own ward, which I know intimately, is the setting for Spirit-filled meetings, daily acts of compassion and service, and abundant goodness in members’ actions and relationships.

At the same time I have many questions.  There is much I do not understand, and there are things that are hard to make sense of or deal with, including both intellectual and practical issues.  I try to deal with such questions and problems with patience, faith, and humility.  My efforts have consistently been blessed with new—deeper and more expansive—understandings so that what sometimes seemed most troubling has provided a path to some of the most precious things I’ve learned.  I am grateful for the challenges to my capacities and understanding since they help me see how far I have to go and give me opportunities for continued inquiry and growth.  I am most frequently aware of my own need to grow in goodness and caring for others.  I recognize my need for divine assistance if I am to move forward in the long road of progress still ahead of me.

If I were to change one thing in the essay published almost thirty years ago, it would be to put greater emphasis on charity, on “the pure love of Christ.”  Faith—reaching out and moving forward with trust—is essential; hope is essential, a vibrant hope that the promised blessings will come.  But as the scriptures tell us, the greatest of these is charity.  Learning to love in the pure, Christ-like way suggested by this word transforms us individually and binds us together with our fellow human beings and with our Father and his Son.  My efforts to love and serve others—family and friends, the wonderful and struggling people I’ve worked with in the Church, and the similarly wonderful and struggling people I’ve encountered in other ways—have confirmed the truth of an idea expressed in The Brothers Karamazov.  In this great novel by Dostoevsky, people come to the Elder Zosima filled with needs and worries.  Zosima tells one of these, a woman struggling to believe, that she can overcome her doubts and come to the faith she desires “by the experience of active love,” not just by dreaming about love but by trying to love those around her “actively and tirelessly.”  The active effort to love can have just this effect, in part because it changes our outlook and our desires.

I believe in Jesus Christ as the perfect embodiment of charity, as of every other virtue.  At age twelve, bearing my testimony for the first time in a public meeting, I said that I knew Jesus is the Son of God.  I still remember the clarity and power of that conviction.  Though spiritual fog has obscured my vision in varying degrees over the years, that conviction has remained with me, and I believe my acquaintance with the Savior has deepened.  Though I still have much to learn, I am convinced that this divine Person who is the foundation of my faith is absolutely real, that he did and taught the things recorded in the scriptures, and that I will some day meet him face to face.

When my essay was first published I had just embarked on the experience of marriage and anticipated bringing children into the world, pursuing a professional career, and enjoying the other adventures life would bring.  I’ve now experienced much of what I anticipated, along with many surprises and challenges that have stretched me and sometimes brought anguish as well as growth and joy.  My life and the lives of those I love have included problems and losses that could leave us bound in chains of regret and hopelessness.  But I have faith—an assurance in which I have heart-felt and enduring confidence—that all damage, every mistake, every hurt, every evil can be completely healed and overcome through God’s power and love, expressed and made available through the atonement of Christ.  As long as we are willing to see and act with faith, there is always hope, hope of the most glorious of possible futures.  No blessing we could possibly imagine will be withheld as long as we are willing to move forward with faith.

Now, along with anticipating further adventures in this world (and I am very actively involved in many of the concerns of this world), I look forward to the eternal fulfillment of those things in which I have put my faith.  I look forward to coming to know my Heavenly Father and my Savior more fully and directly and to enjoying an eternity of sweet association with family and friends.  I hope to share, with those I know and love and with a multitude of others I will yet come to know, the feast of joy that faith makes possible.