Sunday, November 29, 2015

The World Is Wide Enough: the message of "Hamilton" is more relevant than ever

The past few weeks, I have been living in the 18th-century with my non-stop listening to "Hamilton": a new musical by Lin Manuel-Miranda that retells the life of Alexander Hamilton (the first Secretary of the Treasury) with a delightful assortment of rap, hip hop and jazz. Probably one of the most poignant lines comes from Aaron Burr, Hamilton's bitterest enemy due to decades of ranking jealousy, misunderstandings, and vehement political differences. Yet after shooting Hamilton in America's most notorious duel, he mournfully sings:

I was too young and blind to see
I should’ve known
I should’ve known
The world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.

The phrase "the world was wide enough" speaks to me on multiple levels. On the obvious note, it rings back to the show's juxtaposition of Hamilton as an impoverished immigrant from the Caribbean who "got a lot farther/By being a self-starter," with Burr's privileged American roots (his father was president of Princeton). When Hamilton and Lafayette proudly rap, "Immigrants! We get the job done," the play is a not-so-subtle reminder of America's indebtedness to foreigners like them. So, as our nation's leaders debate whether to accept Syrians and Muslims into our country, the play's tribute to an indigent, parentless refugee who founded our nation's economic systems is nothing short of powerful. America should be wide enough for the firmly established American Burrs and the Hamiltons desperately seeking a better life in this nation.

But as Aaron Burr laments his former feelings of acrimony towards Hamilton, this phrase also speaks of making room for people--not removing them. It calls us all to recognize that our world's beauty and complexity is rooted in differing--even opposing--opinions. And while we may no longer formally duel our opponents, I do worry that we are taking an increasingly Burr-like approach to ousting or shunning those with whom we disagree. Our love of man seems to be waxing cold.

My concern is largely rooted in the burgeoning student protest culture that focuses on dismissing those who may present challenges to their worldview of diversity. I certainly believe in inclusivity; I loathe racism and prejudice as anyone else. But something is wrong about a mildly-written email about Halloween costumes that warrants a student to scream and curse at their administrator. Something is awry with student activists (and a professor!) imtimidating a student journalist from entering a protest on public space.Whatever happened holding discussions with leaders? Writing op-eds? What lesson does it teach these students when they can simply oust others for having a differing perspective, rather than learning to calmly discuss and work with others toward a solution? While I hope that our nation becomes safer for traditionally marginalized groups, I simultaneously worry just how far my generation will go to maintain their views of "political correctness," which seems to justify sanctimonious bullying.

Indeed, recent student protests only seem to reinforce the Atlantic's landmark article, "The Coddling of the American Mind," arguing how teachers are reluctant to present the less popular point of view--for fear of causing offense. On a similar note, Arthur Brooks cogently argues that academia is increasingly biased against conservatives in his piece, "Academia's Rejection of Diversity," and calls for more ideological diversity. It is a painful irony that our educational system, rather than widening our world, may actually be narrowing it.  

We can all work to make our world a little wider. One can only hope that we don't end up like Burr and realize this lesson too late.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Making sense of political extremism: my view of "Suffragette" as a 21st century woman

Until last night, I had always envisioned the suffragette movement as organized marches, conventions, and disseminating numerous pamphlets. However, after watching "Suffragette" Friday night, I was introduced to a more violent stream of events than I had ever dreamed possible. After decades of peaceful campaigning for the woman's vote,  these British suffragettes resort to property damage on a grand scale: cutting telephone lines, shattering business windows, destroying mailboxes, and even blowing up a residence--nearly killing a housekeeper. Apparently, even Winston Churchill's face was slashed by a fuming suffragette. Indeed, these women had declared war on the government and the men who ruled them.

Were these women justified in their actions? As a woman who has all of the rights that they fought for, am I supposed to show some respect for the crimes that they committed? And if so, were the Ferguson and Baltimore riots justified? What about the Palestinian suicide bombers? In short, is there ever a political cause that authorizes the perceived disenfranchised to conduct property damage and even injure others in the process of making their cause go forward? Where, if at all, do we draw the boundaries?

As one averse to political extremism, I had a hard time watching this film. That being said, perhaps it is unwise for me to judge these women from my position of privilege and 20-20 hindsight. These women lived in a very different world with little to lose: they earned one-third less than their male counterparts, had less access to education, and enjoyed no rights to their property or even their children.

But perhaps the most disconcerting experience of watching the film was a realization that in some ways, our society is not that different from a century ago. The main character, Maud Watts, explains to a policeman that violence is "the only language men could understand." And today, commentators on the Ferguson and Baltimore riots explained that these riots and looting are "a language of the unheard." Indeed, extremist acts are still perceived as the only way to express frustration with the status quo. But rather than immediately placing blame on the disenfranchised, what does it say about our nation and media that will only turn its head when violence and rioting occurs? Would MLK or Gandhi's tactics be as effectual in influencing policymakers today? While I would like to say yes, I can't be sure. 

Though I am glad this film portrayed a more holistic view of woman's suffrage, I'm not entirely sure how to interpret these women's legacy. But, in a world like ours with groups that have been--and remain disenfranchised--I think this film reminds all of us to show a little more compassion to those who are overlooked. And if there is any semblance of injustice, people in positions of power have the responsibility to ensure that grievances are met and restitution is made.

Photo by Leonard Bentley.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Examining the relationship between the temple and Garden of Eden

Last Sunday, I was fortunate to be a part of an eye-opening discussion, where we examined the Garden of Eden and its relationship to our modern-day temple. I had been looking forward to this discussion for a while, particularly because a friend had asked me earlier about Mormonism's view towards Adam's fall, prompting me to explain our unique take on it (in short, it was a good thing). Below are some of the insights I gained and still pondering about from the discussion:

1. The Garden of Eden was a place where Adam and Eve were able to walk and talk with God, as well as gain instruction. The temple, then, is an opportunity for us to temporarily return to a Garden of Eden-like state, where we can gain spiritual instruction and be in God's presence. The temple is also a poignant reminder that as Adam and Eve's descendants, we are not punished for their transgression in the Garden, as the Lord has provided a means for us to be in his presence at least temporarily. 

2. Juxtaposed with Genesis 2-3, 2 Nephi chapter 2 in the Book of Mormon provides an enlightening (and necessary) perspective of the Fall.

First, the parallels between Adam and Eve's family and Lehi's family are quite striking. Both of these families had been forced to leave their comfortable state (Jerusalem, Garden of Eden), into the unknown wilderness. Their family culture was also divisive with attempted fratricide on both sides (one with a terrible outcome). But what's important to note here is that the Fall is just as relevant to Jacob as it is to us. We live the repercussions of the Fall every day; our afflictions are a direct result of being a part of this mortal experience.

Finally, 2 Nephi 2 provides necessary clarification to Genesis 3. Consider the implications of verses 22-24:

 22 And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:

 23 Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

 24 So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

 Here, God seems to exhibit a similar reaction as Zeus when he discovers that mankind possesses fire, something reserved only for the gods, and he unearths terrible vengeance. Similarly, God views Adam and Eve as a distinct threat, as they have become like him--and they are expelled from his presence.

But reading 2 Nephi 2, a much different explanation takes place. Here we learn that  "the way is prepared from the fall of man, and salvation is free." We also learn that "all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things." Through Christ's atonement, God has prepared a way for his children to return to him. We are not a threat to God, rather, He wants us to return to His presence, and He has planned a way for us to return.

The temple then, stands as a reminder of God's desire for us all to come back to him and to be redeemed through making promises to Him.

Photo by Ted.

Friday, July 24, 2015

No Man is an Island: Lessons Learned in the Land of Fire and Ice

                                                        My mother and I hiking in Iceland. 

As many of you may know, our family went to Iceland for two full weeks this summer. It was an amazing trip for multiple reasons: we were all together after two years enjoying 22 hours of daylight, hiking, fishing, and losing count of all the waterfalls we saw each day.

But perhaps the most meaningful part of the trip was getting to better understand my roots. My grandfather is actually Icelandic, and his grandfather, Elias Eggertson, was one of the thousands of Icelanders who left their homeland for a better life in Nova Scotia and North Dakota. I have felt some connection to the country after helping my grandfather assemble our Icelandic family history almost seven years ago. Growing up in the American Midwest, Iceland held sort of an exoticism to me, as I tried to imagine an island nation clustered with glaciers, volcanic formations, and bizarre hours of sunlight. At the same time, Iceland also seemed like an enigma with its cumbersome language and a relatively insular past that had rarely come up in my history and politics classes in school. In short, it was a country that rarely intersected with my consciousness.

So, when I traveled to Iceland, I expected to have a similar experience as when I had traveled to destinations in Europe and Asia. I was excited to soak in a foreigner's experience, and visit the spas, eat fresh seafood, hike, and swim in the naturally heated pools. I wasn't disappointed. What shocked me the most, however, were its small moments of familiarity.

I had never realized, for example, how Icelandic my mother actually looks, until I saw the other Icelandic women. We couldn't help but chuckle as tourists would tap my mother for directions, assuming that with her high cheekbones and Icelandic sweater, she was a native. They were half-right. One of my younger brothers  suddenly seemed to blend in with the rest of the blonde-haired and blue-eyed Icelandic boys. The nagging question he had always wondered about which side of the family he looked like, had finally been answered.

As most people agree that I look like my mother, I started to wonder how Icelandic I looked. But after a while, I then started to wonder what else I may have actually inherited from my Icelandic heritage:

Do I love seafood because my ancestors fished for hundreds of years in the Arctic Sea?
Can my literary interests be partially attributed to my ancestors who told stories, read, and wrote poetry during the long stretches of winter darkness?
Did I inherit my occasional lack of patience from my Viking forefathers who were reputed for their hot tempers?
Do I prefer cold weather over hot because my ancestors learned to survive and acclimate to arctic temperatures?

Maybe some of these answers are yes, and some are no. Maybe it doesn't really matter. But whatever I did inherit, I did leave Iceland hoping that I possessed--or could hope to claim--some aspects of my heritage. When visiting the northwestern region where our ancestors lived, a sense of wonder and astonishment came to me as I surveyed the treeless land in front of me with the foreboding fjords, glaciers, and rocky cliffs. How could communities have lived in a land like this that seemed so inhabitable? I wondered. Millions of questions came to me: How did they stay warm without trees for firewood? Where are all the large animals that they could have hunted? How did they farm with abundant rocks and snow on the ground? And the ultimate: how did they survive in 18-22 hours of darkness for six months of the year?

                                                        Elias Eggertson's birthplace. Foss, located in the Westfjotds, Iceland

As I visited the birthplace of Elias Eggertson, my ancestor who was responsible for transferring my Icelandic roots to the United States, John Donne's words immediately came to mind:

No man is an island  
Entire of itself
Every man is a piece of the continent 
A part of the main.

The spirit of the Puritan work ethic, while making its mark on our American perspective, nonetheless remains myopic and inadequate on many levels. Of course, I have worked hard to gain the opportunities that I have been given. And yet, I owe something to the men who bravely climbed down 500 ft cliffs to snatch eggs from puffin nests. Or the women whose weary fingers and dimming eyes knit sweaters from sheep wool during the long, dark winter nights. And of course, I am partially here due to my ancestors' intense uptra (a longing for a distant scene) that made them leave their homeland for the unknown. As I stared at my ancestors' birthplace, it suddenly occurred to me that he, a ship captain by trade who had grown up by the sea and waterfalls his whole life, never saw the ocean again when he emigrated. How much he must have missed the water landscape, as he re-branded himself as a farmer in North Dakota.

No matter how many years ago these events occurred, a piece of this nation has made an etching on my soul. And I am glad that it does. I don't know if I have the same kind of hardy, rugged spirit that they did, but I hope I do. I'm sure there is an inner spark of their grit and determination somewhere that I can claim for myself as I navigate my own world and the unknown paths I currently face.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Charleston: A Violation of Sacred Space

I was not alive during the Civil Rights movement. But if I talked to someone who grew up then, it would be unnerving to realize how disturbingly similar our living experiences are. We could talk about conflicts that arise simply because that blacks can occupy the same swimming pool as whites. We could talk about the inexcusable police cruelty on unarmed black men. We could talk about the arrival of the National Guard to quell violence in areas rife with racial conflict.

And now, as of this week, we can now talk about our reaction to a white man, armed with a handgun and unspeakable hatred, who opened fire in a place of black worship.

I have no words to express how I feel about this terrorist event in Charleston (yes, it is a terrorist act) for myriad reasons. There are many directions one can take in response to this event, but for now, I am contemplating on having a sacred space ruthlessly and perversely violated like the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church just experienced this week.

I feel a deep connection to Clementa Pickney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. Daniel Simmons, and Myra Thompson. Why? Because while they were sitting in their Bible study class on Wednesday evening, I was also in a scripture study class at my place of worship here in Boston. Like these victims, I understand how uplifting and edifying it can be to worship in a sacred space.

But what is it, one may ask, that creates this sacred space? Part of the answer is that churches imbue a spirit of trust that is quietly disappearing from American culture. Even in the most historically important and visually arresting edifices, there are often no cumbersome security lines. There are no background checks. There is seldom a suspicious glance at a visitor. And, in many cases, there is no entrance fee. Rather, a church building generally seeks to be a visual representation of God's presence and love, as it offers its inhabitants a spirit of respect and impartiality. And in return, the unspoken but expected rule is to treat fellow congregants in a similar manner as you pray and worship to this same God. As a group, we are responsible to ensuring that this space remains holy.

I have relied on this spirit of trust each time I go to my scripture study class and my Sunday worship services. I place deep confidence in the strangers whom I worship with that we will choose to see each other as God sees us and respect one another's humanity.

So, in the wake of Charleston:

I am deeply angered that someone chose to occupy--and violently destroy--churchgoers' sacred space.

I am infuriated that I was able to leave my church building safely on Wednesday evening, and others in this country cannot enjoy this same privilege.

May we all pray and work harder toward brotherhood, peace, and justice in this country.

Photo by Stephen Melkisethian.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Presence of the Fatted Calf in the Prodigal Son

Last week, I had the chance to teach the Prodigal Son in Sunday School. The parable is always fascinating to teach and discuss, as it usually evokes a personal reaction from many. At different stages of our lives, we can relate to the the elder son's frustration, the father's overwhelming compassion, and the younger brother's rebelliousness and and eventual contrition.

But I think that there is an important symbol in the story that can be overlooked: the fatted calf during the time of the feasting. Of course, it can symbolize the celebration, as well as the genuine pride that the father has for its son's journey to repentance. Studying Leviticus 16 alongside the Prodigal Son can add another layer of richness in understanding the role of the fatted calf in this parable.

Leviticus 16 is an explanation of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the holiest of days for the Jewish people. Yom Kippur was said to be instituted on the day that Moses received the 10 Commandments. Forty days after the Lord gave his second set of instructions to the Israelites, they were granted atonement from the sin of the Golden Calf, through Moses' pleading on behalf of them.

In Leviticus 16, the Lord makes clear of the need for sacrificing animals as part of Day of Atonement. A bull was sacrificed on behalf of the high priest and his household, a goat for the priests, and another goat was released in the wilderness on behalf of the Israelite people (the scapegoat). From these scriptures, sacrificing animals as an offering for sins became established.

Considering the story of the Golden Calf and the Day of Atonement, I think that the fatted calf also offers some important aspects to the story:

1. The fatted calf, like the Golden Calf of the Old Testament, produced joy and merriment for the people in both stories. However, the Golden Calf represented the people's rebellious nature in turning from God. The fatted calf symbolized the celebratory nature the people had for a son turning toward God. Or perhaps, the fatted calf's death alludes to the "death" of the younger son's former life of riotous (and probably idolatrous) living.

2. The Golden Calf and the fatted calf in both stories also present dual aspects of God's character. God's reaction to the Golden Calf is angry and vengeful. But in killing the fatted calf, Christ shows God's character as one of compassion and mercy. The Prodigal Son's story, as seen from the calf in the story, is integral to gaining a more complete picture of God's character.

3. The son's "sins against heaven," as the Jewish audience understood, required expiation of some kind. So, it makes sense that there is a type of animal sacrifice illustrated in the story. But unlike the use of a bull or a goat as explained in Leviticus, the fatted calf is a new animal not yet mentioned as a form for sacrifice. Perhaps Christ was trying to teach that in the new law he was seeking to establish, there would be a new kind of atonement made as a result of our sins. Christ, in a very literal sense for us, is the fatted calf in the story. Just as the son's homecoming inevitably involved the slaughter of the fatted calf, our joyous homecoming to God does involve the sacrifice of a perfect being.

Image by Lawrence OP.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Taking off my rose-colored glasses: my childhood in Baltimore and nearby Ferguson

My siblings and I at Shaw Park in St. Louis, donning our St. Louis Cardinals Christmas hats.

I may seem, in the words of some, "unmappable." That may be true: I have lived in Boston, Washington DC, Provo UT, Hong Kong, Glasgow, St. Louis, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Beijing, and New York City. And now that my family lives in the Middle East, I seem to have even less of a homebase.

While living in numerous areas has given me an affinity for different parts of the world, two cities on that list have deeply shaped me: Baltimore and St. Louis, the places of my childhood. When people asked how I could possibly love these cities, I staunchly defend them both. Were they not aware of Baltimore's beautiful Inner Harbor, Forest Park, Baltimore's memorable seafood, Ted Drewes, and everything else that had been integral parts of my idyllic childhood?

But I was not completely shielded from both cities' social problems. When I was growing up in Baltimore,  my sister and I once gleefully pranced down the stairs in our new Easter dresses, ready to go to church. My mother gently, but firmly, told us to go back upstairs and wear something else. We were disappointed, until we saw poverty's ugly face in our congregation: black children my age not wearing shoes. Women wearing faded pants and a t-shirt because they could not afford to wear a Sunday dress. A child with an eye-patch because his parents could not afford an eye operation. And then I understood why I never saw my dad wear a suit on Sunday, and why, in this case, it was not appropriate to wear my new Easter dress. We were far from rich, but even our tiny house in a modest neighborhood looked like a Taj Mahal in the eyes of many.

Then I went to church in St. Louis County for the first time and was shocked at what my nine-year-old eyes saw. "Mom," I said, "Where are the black people?" As a child used to worshipping and interacting with blacks, I could not understand why everyone in our congregation was white and largely affluent. It didn't seem right. But, unfortunately, it was a sad reflection of St. Louis's harsh truth: it is one of the most (if not the most) segregated cities in the nation. We learned early on which parts of St. Louis were safe, and which ones to avoid. Indeed, St. Louis has a checkered sort of character: areas are known as either largely "white" or largely "black."

My high school experience would have largely reflected my church-going experience, had it not been for the inter-city busing program that brought in kids from St. Louis City. When the program suddenly was deemed as "too expensive" by our superintendent, the majority of our high school body marched out to protest. "Homogenize milk, not students," said one sign. Indeed, the sign's witty statement described a sad reality. Without this program, our high school body would have indeed been quite homogenous: 95% white. In my high schooler's eyes, our protest seemed to represent progress and open-mindedness. Not to mention that our actions made a difference: our superintendent agreed to delay the decision for another eight years. 

Yet, the vestiges of segregation still shows its ugly past. I recall remarking to my dad while driving one day of how strange the interstate highways of St. Louis were mapped out. My dad then pointed out that the interstate highways were specifically planned to avoid St. Louis's poorer areas. And history tends to repeat itself: when the Metrolink public transportation system was going to create a stop close to my community of Clayton, dubbed as "the bubble," controversy brewed. In one of the richest areas of St. Louis County, residents protested that creating a stop would increase crime in our area, as now "anyone" could come to Clayton. Our comfortable, yet insular "bubble" now had the potential to be popped.

When the riots exploded in St. Louis and in Baltimore, I was heartbroken. Mike Brown does not look that different from the high school boys that I went to school with. Freddie Gray could have easily been someone I had gone to church with. But was I surprised? Hardly. While we may claim to be in a post-racist society, many of America's cities are designed from urban planning, government policies, and housing projects that stemmed from prejudicial views. And in areas that do not seem to bear any hope for the current generation, what else can they do? While I do not condone looting and violence, I cannot help but see how, in MLK's view, riots are often the voices of the unheard. And I am glad that many Americans are tuning in and listening to those who are stuck in a perpetual cycle of poverty.

I still love St. Louis and Baltimore. I still cheer for the Cardinals, crave Ted Drewes ice cream, and reminisce on my walks on Baltimore's Inner Harbor. But I also understand that I have to take off my rose-colored glasses when I think of these two cities and view them as they really are. I hope and pray that things will change--that we will actually become a "post-racist" society.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Praying with my fellow jurors: My jury duty experience

Last Thursday, I walked into the Suffolk Superior Courthouse in Boston, MA to answer (begrudgingly) my call for civic responsibility: jury duty. Knowing that this courthouse had far more cases than a lower county court and that I had no legitimate reason to be excused, I knew that I would get assigned to a case.

My hunch was correct. The judge, probably harried from the myriad excuses heard throughout the day, gave a sigh of relief when I admitted that other than missing work, it would not be an unreasonable burden for me to be put on the case. She had already placed three men on the case, and, needing a female, I suppose she thought I would be as good as any.

And so for three days, I became known to everyone as Juror #4.

Fortunately, the case seemed simple enough. Two policemen had witnessed two men perform what appeared to be a drug transaction 20 feet away from them in broad daylight. One of the men was arrested shortly after with possession of cocaine and heroin. They eventually found whom they believed to be the dealer--the one whose fate partially rested in my hands.

Two policemen gave their testimony of what they had seen, claiming that they recognized him immediately, and showed us pictures of the crime scene. I was fairly convinced, but was anxious to hear of any additional witnesses that could contest what the policemen had seen. The defendant's girlfriend offered her story that the defendant was actually with her during the time he was reputed to be selling drugs in the park. It was painfully obvious, however, just how fabricated her story was, which made the policeman's story more credible in my view.

As a jury group of twelve who had never met each other and had little common background, our discussion was unusually lively. But what had started as a roundtable discussion soon splintered into multiple conversations, with some jury members remaining silent and remaining apathetic. Other jury members would attempt to speak out, only to be drowned out by the more vocal members.  How in the world are we going to reach a unanimous decision, I thought?

After one jury member interrupted another who was speaking, I spoke up.

"If our decision is going to be unanimous, this needs to be a roundtable discussion," I said. "We cannot be interrupting each other. Raise your hand if you want to speak."

Being one of the youngest on the jury, I was shocked that people listened to me. But miraculously, they did. I then went into Sunday School teacher mode (yes, I teach Sunday School), and ended up calling on people to who rose their hands speak. And I had no compunction telling people to be quiet if they so much dared as interrupt a fellow juror.

After five hours of deliberation, we had almost reached a consensus: 11-1. One of our jurors could not commit either way, and burst into tears.

"I just don't know if we have enough evidence," she said. "This is two white policeman's testimonies against a black man. And in light of Ferguson and other instances of police corruption, are we okay with that? Sending a guy to prison is a big deal, and what if we are wrong? What if we are wrong? This is a decision that we will have to live with for the rest of our lives, and I want to walk out of here with a clear conscience."

Silence filled the room, and others gently affirmed that it was indeed a large decision that we were making. But I did not know on earth we were going to do. We had gone in circles talking about the same pieces of evidence we had. How were we going to reach a consensus? What else was there could we discuss that we had not already discussed? And what if he was indeed innocent? Was my conviction incorrect?

I then heard myself saying, "I don't know about the rest of you, but I am a religious person. Would any of you be offended if I offered a prayer out loud?" Everyone looked at me, but shook their heads and said I could go ahead.

I then bowed my head and offered a short prayer out loud, asking God to help us make the right decision and that we would have a good feeling leaving the courtroom. I don't know if everyone had bowed their heads with me, but a peaceful feeling filled the room. After some silence, some jurors reiterated why they went from having an undecided view to being confident of the defendant's guilt.

After 20 minutes, the undecided lady then announced that she was ready to call the defendant guilty. After six hours of deliberation, we had finally reached a consensus: 12-0. From the juror's countenances, I could tell that everyone in the room was confident in their decision.

I tried not to look at the family crying in the courtroom and the defendant's stoic gaze, as we told the judge our decision. But when we had left, the officer who had escorted us said that he believed that we had made the right choice. He told us that the defendant was actually a subsequent offender, but we were not allowed to know that information. The judge, perhaps in unprecedented fashion, came up to talk to us in the deliberation room, thanking us for our service  and validating our decision as well.

It was certainly an incredible experience to have twelve people from different age ranges, political views, and socio-economic backgrounds to come to a unanimous decision. But I am also grateful for a God who helped me leave that courthouse with a clear conscience and a feeling of peace.

Photo by cmh2315fl

Thursday, March 19, 2015

How does God define "blessed"?

Of all the phrases in the Book of Mormon, I think that this phrase has to be the most reiterated: "If you keep the commandments, you will be blessed." As the Book of Mormon chronicles the need for repentance and obedience to God's law, using the examples of multiple individual lives, I would argue that one of the book's key messages is establishing the clear link between righteous living and enjoying a blessed life.

But what does being "blessed" mean? As a teenager reading the Book of Mormon, I assumed that if I lived the way I was supposed to, I would be "blessed." In my mind, that included multiple things: enjoying college success, physical health, academic opportunities abroad, a mission in Asia, a career of some kind, and a life on the East Coast. The most important blessing to me, however, was an eternal marriage and family.

A decade later, many of the blessings I wanted came true. I did three semester abroads, a mission in Hong Kong, and created a life for myself in DC and Boston. I have a promising career at Harvard Business School, enjoyed multiple trips abroad, no health complications to speak of, and myriad blessings that are too numerous to name here. Yet, marriage and family have yet to be fulfilled. It never crossed my mind as a teenager that I would celebrate my 28th birthday as an unmarried woman.

With this gap between my expectations and reality, I have contemplated what God means when he says "blessed." While I have been extremely fortunate to receive much of what I expected from God for some reason, I am beginning to realize that life has few guarantees. Marriage, whether it happens sooner to me than later, is not a guarantee of righteous living. The only blessing that I can really expect from God as a result of my obedience is the companionship of the Spirit. That is the only defined blessing that is mentioned in our baptismal covenants and the Sacrament prayer each week. It is a momentous blessing, but too often. we subconsciously attach multiple other blessings that we expect to receive as a result of our righteous behavior.  

That's when the problem arises. We live our lives in such a way to receive those required "blessings", only to become frustrated and confused when our expectations remain unmet. I am increasingly convinced that "blessed" means that God will give us things that we stand in need of, though we do not know what exactly those blessings may turn out to be.

It is also interesting to me how the Savior uses the word "blessed" when introducing the Beatitudes to his disciples. When teaching Gospel Doctrine several weeks ago, I was struck by how many of the blessings that Christ pronounces as a result of righteous behavior can only be enjoyed in the next life, namely, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." Indeed, God's definition of "blessed" seems to span the eternities, not this mortal life only.

Nowadays, when I read the Book of Mormon and see the oft-reiterated phrase, "if ye keep the commandments, ye shall be blessed," I simply replace "blessed" with "seeing God again one day." That's all I really know, after all.

Photo by Kevin Dooley

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Can we make discussions about female weakness more empowering?

Since being in Relief Society, I have been continually amazed by the amount of lessons devoted to addressing women's perceived foibles and shortcomings. These lessons usually include a lengthy discussion on why women are so hard on themselves, a reminder of our outer and inner beauty, followed by accolades for how much good we do.

I understand that some women are unfairly hard on themselves and sometimes need this gentle reminder. And while I have written before about the dangers of putting women on pedestals, I recognize that women deserve recognition for what they do.

However, I believe that if we continually couch our discussion about female weaknesses in this fashion, we are missing an opportunity to strengthen our relationship with God and better utilize the Atonement in the quotidian areas of our lives.

Let's look at the Book of Mormon's Ether 12:27, the classic scripture for addressing human weakness. Pay attention to the first clause.

 27 And if men come unto me, I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.

My interpretation of this scripture is that the more spiritually mature we are becoming (coming unto God), the more aware we become of our weaknesses. It's simply part of the process. As a neophyte missionary, I remember being continually dissatisfied of my perceived sense of self, until my teacher reminded me that I had probably never been in an environment where I had experienced spiritual growth more rapidly. Of course, I was going to have some frustration with my shortcomings. But it doesn't have to end at this step.

We need to acknowledge that perceiving our own weaknesses, rather than being readily dismissed, is crucial to obtaining spiritual growth. They serve as a gentle reminder that we can exercise a greater dependence with God the Father and His Son. Perhaps we are more judgmental of others or more brash in our language than we should be. Whatever our weaknesses are, God's hand is "stretched out still," ready to help us.

Acknowledging and working to overcome our weaknesses is part of utilizing the Atonement on a daily basis. We can pray for the capacity to forgive a family member, to be more friendly, to better understand the scriptures, etc. etc. The list is infinite. It is little wonder that God was known as the great alchemist in early Western literature: he is anxious to help us transform the unrefined metals of our shortcomings to a golden substance that is beautiful and useful.

Yes, Relief Society women are beautiful and amazing. But relying on these platitudes when discussing our weaknesses will undermine our remarkable capacity for spiritual progress. In the words of Lucy Mack Smith, we are capable of doing "something extraordinary."

Photo by More Good Foundation.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Holy Spaces, Prayer Rolls, and Being Remembered in Mecca

As many of you know, I was able to visit my parents in Doha, Qatar over break. It's a country that is largely bereft of grass, has more construction cranes than I could count, and has unrestrained pride in hosting the 2022 World Cup.  Somehow, though, my parents and brothers have learned to call it home, and seeing them so happily situated was one of the best parts about living there.

Upon arrival, my mother was anxious to introduce me to A-Beer, her neighbor next door, and one of my mother's close friends. She is a beautiful young Muslim mother from Jordan who had declined a lucrative engineering career to raise five children. Somehow, however, she had found time to give my mother rides and prepare her to pass Qatar's stringent driving test (no small task). My mother's highly coveted driver's license and acclimation to Qatar can be partly attributed to A-Beer and her kindness.

I finally had a chance to meet A-Beer after she and her family had returned from Mecca. For those who are unaware, a Muslim's trip to Mecca is a powerfully spiritual pilgrimage, as they have the chance to walk and pray around the Ka'aba seven times. The Ka'aba  is Islam's holiest site, as its foundations were built by Abraham and Ishmael. Muslims all over the world turn their bodies towards this site every day of their life, so the experience of seeing the Ka-aba first hand can only be described as a most sacred experience.

Upon our arrival to their house, A-Beer's small children told us about their visit to the Ka'aba and were anxious for us to try the zamzam water. This water is called miraculous, as it is thought to be from the same location where the Hagar quenched her thirst in the wilderness after her expulsion. As this water is highly prized and considered to have special healing properties, I was touched that they would want to share their zamzam water with me.

But the most poignant moment occurred when A-Beer told me that she had prayed for our whole family as she walked around the Ka'aba. She had even prayed for me to get married! I was astonished that she would even bother to to pray for our family, let alone for someone like me whom she had never met, when making the most spiritual trip of her life. But somehow, I had been remembered and prayed for in a part of the world that I have never been, have no connection to, and never will be allowed to enter.

Yet in A-Beer's mind, she probably prayed for me and my family because she knew that as a non-Muslim, I would never be able to enter and pray toward the Ka-aba. So, she had taken upon herself to give a prayer for me in a literal space that I was not allowed to occupy, in hopes that I could receive the same blessing from the Ka'aba that she enjoyed.

After meeting A-Beer, I have not only reflected  on the oft inherent selfishness of my own prayers, but also my gratitude of being a member of the church that is concerned with the same problem that A-Beer recognized in her own religion. I am grateful that when I enter a Mormon temple, I can go to our prayer roll and write down the name of someone who is in need of a blessing. While our temples, like Mecca, also restrict non-believers from entering, no one is excluded from our prayer rolls. Rather, their names are placed on our temple altar, one of our temple's holiest sites, and prayed for in a fervent and heartfelt manner. I have also reflected on my need to be a more active participant in temple work, where I do have the chance to give my deceased ancestors blessings in a space that they cannot physically occupy either.

I am grateful for a religion like Islam, which may restrict its holy city to believers, but will not forbid believers from sharing holy zamzam water and praying for non-Muslims like me. And I am grateful for Mormon temples that may limit its entrants to those who are sufficiently prepared, but where potentially anyone can be a recipient of its blessings.

Photo Credit to Kashif Aziz