Saturday, March 30, 2013

March Fun

As March comes to a close, I thought I’d catch up on some of the fun family activities we enjoyed during the month. Here goes.

On March 9th, we decided to try a local pizza joint that is famous for making gigantic pizzas. When we arrived at Momo’s Pizza, I ran in to pick up the pizza. I knew it was going to be big, but I had no idea what I was in for. The size of the pizza far exceeded my expectations. I think you could fit half a dozen newborns comfortably inside the pizza box. I had difficulty getting out of the restaurant while holding onto the thing. Thankfully, we had taken the minivan to Momo’s. If we hadn’t, I don’t know how we would have gotten the pizza home. The thing wouldn’t even fit inside of a normal car trunk! I don’t think the pictures below do it justice, unless you look very closely. Notice that the pizza box is long enough to cover over half of our dining table. The pizza slices themselves were about as long as Peter’s arm. Normal-sized plates couldn’t hold them. It was an adventure.

The week of March 10th through March 16th was my spring break. Melanie and I toyed with various ideas of what we could do to celebrate. We really loved the idea of going on an actual vacation, but rational thinking soon got the better of us. We decided that we should just stay put. Edison still had school, and half of the fun things you can do out of town can be done much more cheaply by staying put. And so we did stay put. At least for a few days. We rewarded ourselves for our responsible behavior by rejoining the Church of Costco after a near two-year hiatus. When that didn’t provide the thrill we were craving, we broke down and went on a mini-vacation to exotic Jacksonville. We left on Friday morning and spent the day at the Jacksonville Zoo. We decided to revisit the zoo because they had a new dinosaur exhibit that we thought the kids would like. Eddie and Peter had fun with it. Creegan was rather nervous about the robotic dinosaurs and clung to Melanie and me during that entire portion of our visit.

After the zoo, we checked in at the Staybridge Suites. Our suite was like a little apartment. It had a separate bedroom with a king-size bed and its own television. The living room featured a sofabed on which Eddie and Peter (and for a very limited time, Creegan) slept. The suite also featured a small kitchen area, with a full-size fridge, a microwave, a stovetop, a dishwasher, and cupboards full of dinnerware. We didn’t utilize any of that stuff other than the fridge, but we wished we had planned on a longer stay and could have made use of the amenities. Instead, we ate at a nearby restaurant, Miller’s Ale House, which was enjoyable. I had some crazy cheeseburger topped with onion straws, barbecue sauce, pulled pork, jalapenos, and more. It was pretty good.

Looking for pictures? Melanie wrote about our Jacksonville trip and posted pictures on her blog. Go ahead and check it out by clicking here.

On Saturday morning, we enjoyed the hotel’s complimentary breakfast. It was slightly fancier than those we’ve had at other hotels. They had real oatmeal, rather than little packets you heat up yourself. They had cheese omelets. They had glass plates, glass glasses and silver silverware. Needless to say, we were the only family of five in the dining area and didn’t fit in too well. But we made the most of it. We then checked out of the hotel and headed to Valdosta for the opening day of Wild Adventures’ 2013 season. We’re still season pass members, so we figured we’d go as soon as we could. The nice thing about being a season pass holder is that you don’t feel obligated to spend 10 hours at the park. You can mosey about for a few hours and then go home. This particular visit ended up being one of our most laidback ever. One reason is that we were tired. Another reason is that I ended up not feeling very well. I went with Eddie on his favorite roller coaster, Swamp Thing, and felt fine. I then went with Peter and Eddie on a new ride, Whacky Wheels. It’s basically a version of the teacup ride at Disneyland, but perhaps even milder. It wasn’t a big deal at all, but after spinning on the ride for a few minutes, I did not feel well. Fortunately, our next destination was the train ride, which had such a long line that I had plenty of time to just be still. That helped, but the train ride was my last. (Creegan is totally into train rides. Ever since we first went to the Jacksonville Zoo in January, Creegan regularly asks us, “Zoo train?” He constantly hopes we’ll go back. We’re hoping the Wild Adventures train, albeit not as exciting, will satisfy his train-riding needs for the year.) After the train, Edison went on one more ride with Melanie while I watched Peter and Creegan run around in a little splash park. We then headed home, our vacation complete.

Peter at Wild Adventures. This photo was taken on my cell phone. Peter is using his hands to give himself mean eyebrows.

I don’t have much to say about St. Patrick’s Day. The leprechauns showed up and turned our milk green, left little footprints around, and even turned the toilet water green. Edison’s old enough that the pinching rituals of St. Patrick’s Day were in effect. Since St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Sunday, Eddie knew he would see quite a few people that day. He was rather concerned about getting pinched despite the fact that he was wearing green. Hypocritically, he was rather fond of pinching me despite my wearing a green bread tie around my finger.

Though Easter comes tomorrow, Edison, Peter, and Creegan have already participated in two Easter egg hunts. The apartment complex in which we live hosted an Easter egg hunt yesterday afternoon. They do activities like this fairly often, which is cool. Our boys actually scored quite a few eggs, which pleased me because I know my kids aren’t the most assertive and can often be overrun by more aggressive kids. Eddie even found one of three golden eggs that were hidden around the perimeter of the apartment clubhouse. His prize? A large chocolate bunny. It was the perfect prize, as Edison had asked Melanie for a chocolate bunny just a day or two earlier.

This morning, we participated in an Easter egg hunt at our church. Despite a rule that kids were limited to 20 eggs each, Peter had a hard time collecting that many. Edison quickly found 20 eggs, but Peter topped out at 14. After much searching, he discovered one more. He then had to rely on the generosity of a no-good kid who had collected more eggs than she should have in the first place. She donated five eggs to Peter, bringing his total to 20. Creegan only collected 9, but he didn’t care much. He hasn’t felt well these last couple of days, and he mostly wanted to be held.

Our church has a very large yard, which is great for Easter egg hunts.

After this morning’s Easter egg hunt, our boys dyed some hard-boiled eggs. Our house now smells like vinegar.

And that pretty much does it for March! Happy Easter, everyone!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Called to Serve

Well, it wasn’t a call, really. It was a private message on Facebook.

In true gestational style, the last nine months have been something of a spiritual rebirth for me. If you read my blog, I’m sure you’ve noticed. It seems nowadays that I rarely blog about anything other than religion and spirituality. That’s because it’s on my mind almost 24-7. I rarely get a chance to write up the thoughts that occupy my brain, but they’re there in abundance.

December 2012 was a pivotal month for me. The month started with me at the top of my spiritual game. In a period of less than two weeks, I went from being at one of the highest points of my spiritual life to wallowing in spiritual despair. In a recent blog post, I recounted this experience in limited detail. I concluded that the experience was God’s way of preparing me to empathize with those who struggle in their faith. As you may recall, my own crisis of faith had commenced with me asking God in prayer to help me help others. That’s when the rug of conviction was so violently swept out from under me. It was jarring, and only after my faith had been restored could I understand why I would feel so abandoned in the midst of what had theretofore been a phase of spiritual rejuvenation.

Little did I know, in terms of having my prayer answered, this was only the beginning. In a series of events that a skeptic would call coincidental but that I call miraculous, I have been invited to contribute regularly to a blog whose sole purpose is to help those who struggle in their faith. The blog is an appendage to A Thoughtful Faith (ATF), one of several LDS-themed podcasts that I discovered within the last year. The official mission statement of ATF, according to its website, is as follows:
A Thoughtful Faith features the stories and perspectives of intelligent, thoughtful believers who maintain a strong faith in Mormonism despite their awareness of and/or struggles with common challenges and issues. Our hope is to model potential paths for individuals in faith transition or crisis that allow them to maintain faith, as well as provide resources for thoughtful believers everywhere.
I don’t know if I can stress how humbling this opportunity is for me. Podcasts have played a major role in my spiritual journey. ATF was not only among those podcasts, but my favorite of the bunch! It is quite literally a part of what led me to ask God to help me help others. I had no idea that I would be writing for their blog less than four months after my prayerful petition led to some heart-wrenchingly intense spiritual training. Call it a coincidence if you wish, but this seems about as direct an answer to a prayer as I’ve ever received. The ATF Facebook community has over 800 members. I have no idea how many people listen to the podcast, but needless to say, once their blog is launched, the amount of people who read my thoughts will jump several thousand percent. It’s overwhelming, and yet it is thrilling to think of inspiring even a fraction of those readers. I truly regard this as an opportunity to love and serve others, and that is what excites me the most.

My first appearance on the yet-to-be unveiled blog will probably be in late April. I’ll let you know as soon as it is up.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Clarifying Transcendence

In my previous post, I discussed the idea of transcending religion. I don’t think I said anything too outlandish, but I worry that I wasn’t careful enough in presenting my ideas. For the record, I’d been wanting to write the post for several days before I started, and even when I did write it, I did so in piecemeal over a two- or three-day period. Admittedly, I feel that my original thoughts were not captured as beautifully as I’d hoped. In the interest of beating a dead horse, I’d now like to reiterate my ideas in a way that will hopefully clear up any misunderstandings to which my post may have given rise.

Firstly, let me say that when I refer to a person transcending religion, I do not mean that one no longer finds religion necessary or important. As I said in my previous post, transcending religion involves not an abandonment of one’s religion, but a shift in how one relates to it. This shift occurs as one’s convictions become more firmly rooted in personal experience and less in the authoritative declarations of the Church. One knows that a given doctrine is true not because it is decreed by some particular institution, but because one is personally acquainted with its truthfulness. One has lived the principle and found it to be correct, one has reasoned it out and become convinced of its truthfulness, and/or one has confirmed the reality of the teaching via God Himself. One might be introduced to the principle via a religious institution, but over time, one’s acceptance of that principle is no longer a matter of religious affiliation. Instead, it is underwritten by personal experience. It is no longer a religious tenet, it is a personal conviction.

It seems evident to me that this is what’s required of a thoughtful, meaningful, and mature faith. The religious institution declares X as a truth, the religious adherent tests X, and then the religious adherent either adopts or rejects X. Many people leave out that middle step, and as a consequence, they adopt X without giving it much (if any) thought. But the mere embracing of that middle step is, in my opinion, precisely what it means to transcend religion. Significantly, one cannot authentically embrace this middle step without allowing for the possibility that X will be rejected. If one cannot sincerely accept that X may prove false, then one cannot sincerely test for X’s validity. The point I was trying to make in my previous post is that it’s incredibly difficult for a religious adherent to do this. One might adopt X into one’s life and ultimately gain a fervent testimony of it, but one is not really testing X if one rejects the very possibility that X is false. One way that Mormons are taught to test the teachings of the Church is via prayer. However, one cannot sincerely approach God in prayer if one is willing to accept only one answer. In effect, such a person can offer prayers only that amount to something like, “God, please confirm to me that X is true, for I know that it is. I know that you can’t possibly confirm to me that X is false, since the Church teaches X. Thus, I already know how you’ll respond, and I know that if I feel that X is false, those feelings aren’t coming from you. So, really, it doesn’t much matter how you answer this prayer. I’ll continue to believe X, as I should since it is correct, as evidenced by the fact that the Church teaches it. In other words, I know this prayer won’t influence what I believe. But I do enjoy feeling doubly assured that I am right. So, send those confirmations my way. Or don’t. It doesn’t really matter.”

As I use the term, to “transcend religion” is to fully extricate oneself from the possibility of offering prayers like that above. The key word here is “fully.” I think that is so much harder than we can appreciate. As Mormons, we trust that the Church is led by God. But this is a surprisingly ambiguous claim. For some, it means that anything the Church does is a direct and precise manifestation of God’s will. For others, it means only that God stands ready to correct the Church should it ever threaten to veer off into a spiritual ditch. Others fall somewhere in between these two views. Needless to say, where a person falls on this spectrum influences just how easily that person can transcend religion. While I think the former view is clearly misguided, I’m not certain that the latter view is necessary for transcending religion. And yet no matter how liberal the believer’s relationship to the Church may be, conformity provides an ever-ready safety net that it is hard to relinquish. Few of us are truly prepared to let it be dismantled.

Now, to clarify a couple of quotes from my previous post. At one point, I said:
Lately, I’m wondering if the ultimate test of faith doesn’t come in rejecting all other authorities but God. It seems obvious enough that we shouldn’t have any authorities above God, but neither should we have co-authorities.
Taken out of context, this may sound like a denunciation of religion altogether. But it’s not. Notice that I reject the idea of there being co-authorities with God. By co-authorities, I mean equal authorities. I believe that God is the ultimate authority, and I believe that no religious institution or leader is equal in authority to God. Thus, I shouldn’t treat any religious institution or leader as such. This doesn’t mean that I can’t recognize a religious authority as a religious authority, however. The important thing is to recognize the distinction between God and religion in the first place. God is the authority. Religion is not. At best, religion is a courier service for God. This is why I followed the statement quoted above with “Religious leaders are meant to be servants, delivering us messages that we can confirm by our own access to Divinity.”

A moment later, I said:
…what better way [for God] to test [our allegiance to Him] than to reveal to us personally a truth that is at odds with the current practices of the Church.
Some will find this kind of statement unsettling. Perhaps when you read this, you imagined some crazy person who gets a vision in the middle of the night, where an angel appears to the person to tell him that the Church has gone astray and is teaching false doctrine. Perhaps you imagined some zealot getting it into his head that some fundamental teaching of the Church is entirely wrong. Perhaps you imagined some fanatic believing it is his role to correct the Church of its wicked ways. Well, I certainly didn’t mean anything so dramatic. But the fact is, the Church has been wrong about things. And that means that throughout history, prayerful members of the Church very well could have received spiritual confirmations that the Church or its leaders were mistaken about something. Brigham Young offers us a handful of examples. Brigham was fond of declaring things in the name of the Lord, including very racist things. He also implemented certain teachings into the LDS temple ritual that later prophets decried as heretical. Presumably, sincere seekers of truth could have prayed about these things during Brigham Young’s tenure as President of the Church, and if they had, presumably God would have led them to recognize Brigham’s teachings as false. It is woefully arrogant to suppose that we in the Church today have somehow arrived at a magical time when everything that is taught over the pulpit is correct. But unless one is open to the possibility of the Church being wrong, how could God possibly protect you from those errors? How could you transcend those errors, if you’re not willing to transcend the Church?

Points to ponder.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Transcending Religion

O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm. (2 Nephi 4:34)

Religion is meant to draw one closer to God. Its entire purpose is instrumental. It is not the end itself, but a means to an end. While this seems a fairly uncontroversial claim to make, its implications for the religious adherent are profound. Couched within this seemingly innocuous claim is the idea that one must ultimately transcend one’s own religion. A religion is successful only insofar as it becomes of secondary importance to its followers’ spiritual wellbeing.

Based on my observations, a majority of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints struggle with this concept. Or, perhaps more accurately, the concept never even occurs to them. For many observant Mormons, devotion to the Church simply is devotion to God. The two cannot come apart. To disagree with any teaching or practice of the Church is to oppose God’s will. For the record, I wholeheartedly reject this kind of thinking, and I believe it stands in direct opposition to the precepts of Mormonism itself. But my aim here is not to denounce blind obedience. Instead, I wish to focus on just how difficult it is to dedicate ourselves to God rather than to religion.

It is important here to return to the notion of transcending religion. What do I mean by that? Well, one thing I don’t mean is that one’s religion becomes totally irrelevant. That’s not the kind of transcendence to which I am referring. But, undoubtedly, one’s relationship to one’s religion can change. It seems to me that it should change as one spiritually matures. An analogy with secular knowledge may be useful. Imagine a school that offers a wide variety of classes. Students of the school are taught not only factual information, but appropriate methodologies for conducting their own research. Students are even encouraged to research and test the information they are taught, to verify that it is correct. Now, if a student masters the research techniques (as well as anyone can) and is therefore capable of her own research, she no longer relies upon the school as the lone disseminator of truth. She can acquire the truth directly. She has transcended the school. In theory, the school could flounder and the student would have nothing to worry about. In principle, it would no longer matter what the school does. Imagine you are the student. So long as the school maintains its research standards, which can be verified only by matching the school’s research results with your own, you’re in good shape and can trust that the school remains reputable. But if it ever publishes research that your own research seems to discredit, it needn’t matter to you. So long as you trust your research, you can rest on your own convictions.

Sounds easy, right? Not very. Put yourself in the shoes of a student who feels her research does contradict the latest research officially published by the school. If you really believe the school has always been a top-notch institution, where are you more likely to direct your doubt? Quite likely, at yourself. And perhaps at a certain stage in your academic development, this makes sense. But what if you’ve reached that point where you feel extremely confident in your capabilities and you’re just plain getting different research results? What if you’ve checked and rechecked the data, seventy times seven? Furthermore, what if you know the school is capable of making mistakes, even if few and far between? Wouldn’t you then be convinced that you are right and that the school is wrong? You’d think so. You’d hope so. But I bet you’d have a very difficult time with it. And I still think you’d be more likely to doubt yourself than the school. The question is, if you’re really using the best methodological techniques out there, should you reject your own research and side with the school?

I believe that God wants us to rely on Him. I believe that turning to God is the right methodology for acquiring certain kinds of truth. Relying on religious leaders is not the same as relying on God, no matter how intimately the two are related. Not when we believe that we have access to God and that we should verify everything through Him. But this puts us in a very precarious position. How can we know that we rely on God and not on men? What could possibly be our trial of faith in this matter? How could we possibly prove ourselves in relation to this principle?

Lately, I’m wondering if the ultimate test of faith doesn’t come in rejecting all other authorities but God. It seems obvious enough that we shouldn’t have any authorities above God, but neither should we have co-authorities. Religious leaders are meant to be servants, delivering us messages that we can confirm by our own access to Divinity. The point is not to trust in the leaders. The point is to trust in God. For many Mormons, there isn’t any motivation to seek out the distinction. But I wonder if full spiritual maturity doesn’t require us to do so, in which case a test must come. And what better way to test us than to reveal to us personally a truth that is at odds with the current practices of the Church. I cannot think of a more poignant trial of faith. Do we trust men, or do we trust the Spirit that we’ve been told should be our guide in everything? If your answer is, “Well, anything that contradicts the Church must not come of the Spirit, so I’d side with the men,” then you’ve proven where your allegiance lies—in the arm of flesh. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not chastening you. I think that’s where a lot of us are. But it’s not where we should be.

In all of this, I can’t help but think of Abraham. Many of us are baffled by Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. We’re equally baffled by God’s requesting the sacrifice. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s not what God would do. If Abraham were rational, he would have known that such a request could not have come of God. Or, at least, this is what human reasoning, laws, and the like would tell us. Now, I’m not here to make any claims about the veracity of the Abraham story. But it certainly seems as though a greater test of faith cannot be had than that which asks us to rely on spiritual sensitivity at the expense of strongly held, preconceived notions. For Mormons, such notions are a dime a dozen.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Never Gonna Give You Up

Never gonna give you up … never gonna say goodbye…
- Rick Astley, English poet

When I was in my master’s program, I attended a meeting at which various professors spoke to graduate students about pursuing PhDs. We were told that, if we plan to go on to pursue doctoral degrees, we should anticipate spending an additional five to seven years in graduate school. Having a master’s degree would not truncate that. Few, if any, of us would prove an exception to this rule, or so we were told.

I’m now two months shy of completing my fifth year in my PhD program. As of March 20th, I’ll celebrate my one-year anniversary of becoming ABD. A firm graduation date still eludes me, however. I can now say with the greatest of confidence that I will not be graduating before August. Quite possibly, I will not graduate until December. And maybe, just maybe, I won’t graduate until May 2014.

Why the delay?

Well, I shared that anecdote from my days as a master’s student for a reason. I want to remind people that I am not unusual in taking this long to complete my PhD. I know several PhD students who have been in my program even longer than I have. The thing is, now that I know a May 2013 graduation date is not in the cards, I have to do more than complete my PhD requirements. I have to strategize. I could graduate in August. It’s entirely possible. But it might not be wise of me to do so. If I graduate in August, I’m unlikely to have a job lined up for the 2013-14 academic year. That means I’ll be out of work, with a PhD. That’s like opening a jar of mayo and leaving it on the counter. If it sits unused for too long, it starts to become a problem. It starts to smell funky, and nobody wants to touch it. According to those who know better than I, until I get a job, I should postpone graduation for as long as I possibly can.

Here’s the good news. The philosophy department recently informed me that my funding has been extended through May 2014. In other words, if I am interested in sticking around, I will continue to receive a tuition waiver and a modest stipend for at least one more year. They’ll even put me back at half-time TA status, which effectively doubles the stipend I am currently receiving. Admittedly, this takes a huge weight off of my shoulders. I know the department is pretty good about keeping students on that need it, but it’s never something that they guarantee. Until this latest offer was presented, I didn’t know for sure what my options were for the fall. Now I have something of a safety net. And it’s a safety net I’m pretty sure I’ll fall into. By waiting until (at least) December to graduate, I’ll be able to participate in the big round of job applications that takes place in October without sitting on an unused PhD. I’ll also be able to maximize my job prospects before going into repayment on my student loans. If it weren’t for the necessary evil of student loans, I wouldn’t feel nearly so rushed to complete my PhD. Unfortunately, I can avoid repaying them only by remaining in a position where I rely upon them.

To summarize: Tallahassee, I’m here to stay. At least a little bit longer.