Sunday, July 28, 2013

The First Shall Be Last

It’s occurred to me that a serious threat to spiritual living is getting things backwards. I’m astounded at just how easily we do this. In Mormon culture, it seems to happen all the time. Devout Mormons—and followers of many other religious traditions, I’m sure—can be especially fond of clinging to anything other than the Christian fundamentals of loving your neighbor as yourself and judging not. The same people who bristle at the thought of women wearing more than one pair of earrings because once upon a time, one leader of the LDS Church said that such a thing was unbecoming, may nevertheless ignore the Savior’s own injunction to love one another, by refusing to let their children play with their non-Mormon peers. It’s baffling. Fitting into a given mold has become more important than seeking to love and uplift. It’s as though some would say, “Yes, loving and serving others is okay, so long as you don’t break the rules. Rules come from God, and hence are unbreakable.” Never mind the question of determining what “rules” truly come from God. Jesus made it clear that there is really only one rule: love. He taught by example that there is a legitimate and important difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. There would be no need for such a lesson if the two paths never diverge. It follows that anyone who sticks to the letter of the law cannot possibly be doing things right, because such a person cannot possibly be living by the spirit of the law. Even so, many in the LDS community would say that the spirit of the law is justified only insofar as it conforms to the letter of the law. This is, quite simply, blasphemous.

Prioritizing rules over attitude and character is merely a symptom of something else we all too frequently get backwards, which is where we place our allegiances and our trust. Jeremiah 7:15 reads: “Thus saith the Lord; Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord.” Of course, pretty much all of us begin our spiritual journeys by trusting in the arm of flesh. We learn about God from human beings who are flawed but whom we nevertheless trust. If you grow up in a religious family, you quickly learn who and what are the “legitimate” avenues for learning about Divinity. We measure our understanding of God by how well it accords with the behavior and teachings of those who supposedly know better than we do. Perhaps it’s not so surprising, then, that relatively few people ever manage to supplant those authorities with God Himself. If you grow up being told that you can know about God by listening to what Mr. Soandso says, then Mr. Soandso can quite easily become the filter through which your every experience of God must pass. Mr. Soandso then becomes your ultimate spiritual authority, since even God must live up to Mr. Soandso’s pronouncements before you will accept that it is really God who is speaking to you.

All of this hearkens to something I’ve written about before, which I called transcending religion. If the notion of transcendence sounds too new-agey for you, perhaps you will find what I say here to be a preferable way of looking at it. I believe that as we spiritually mature, we must turn things inside out. We must reverse the line of trust. Consider the way in which many of us come to our religious convictions. We begin as children who trust our parents. Because we trust our parents, we trust the religion to which they subscribe. Because we trust the religion, we trust those whom we see as its appointed spokespersons, whether it be modern-day church leaders, the words of prophets recorded in scripture, or a combination thereof, etc. Because we trust those spokespersons, we trust the values that they preach. Because we trust those values, we trust that those values reflect the nature of God. Our understanding of God is built upon a rich layer of trust in humankind.

I think it is absolutely vital that we reverse this flow of trust. At some point, we need to become personally acquainted with God. We need to put Him first and recognize His character. We need to embrace values not because they are espoused by various church leaders or touted in scripture, but because we recognize their goodness and their compatibility with the God we know. That is, we know God, and we accept our values based on that understanding. We can then assess those religious spokespersons who speak to us from the pulpit or out of the scriptures. We know that what they say is right, when it is right, because it accords with the character of God that we know and because it evinces the principles we know are true. In brief, we no longer trust those principles because we trust our prophets and leaders, but we trust our prophets and leaders because (and when) we recognize that they are promoting true and correct principles. Our adherence to a religious tradition can then be founded on truth and not mere trust. We know that the spokespersons of the religion speak truth, and so we accept the religion. We don’t accept what the spokespersons say because we already accept the religion as true. Indeed, at this more mature stage, we recognize that it is absurd and nonsensical to embrace the teachings of a person because that person speaks for a given religious organization. A religion is made “true” by its true teachings; the teachings aren’t made true because the religion, apart from its teachings, is somehow “true.” And finally, because we now trust the religion to which we belong, we can trust that our parents are right. The direction of trust has been completely reversed.

Funny enough, by the time we spiritually mature, we are quite likely to find ourselves in the parental role. We then become a source of trust to our own children. Hopefully, their trust is not misplaced. It is our responsibility to ensure it is not, which means we have to be doing things right. Not because we want our children to grow up forever believing what we believe, simply because they trust us. But because we want them to become acquainted with what we know, so that eventually they can come back to us and say, “I believed you were right. Now I know that you were right.”

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Not So Thoughtful After All

Some of you may remember when, approximately four months ago, I announced that I would be writing for the blog at A Thoughtful Faith. Some of you may even remember when, approximately three months ago, I announced that my first post had appeared on A Thoughtful Faith. Few to none of you have probably been wondering when my next blog post will appear on A Thoughtful Faith. The answer is: never.

Here’s the good news. I will now be contributing to the blog component of Exploring Sainthood. For all intents and purposes, Exploring Sainthood is very much the same as A Thoughtful Faith. In fact, Exploring Sainthood came along because those who were the primary caretakers of A Thoughtful Faith decided to break off and form their own website. I went with them, and so now I am part of the Exploring Sainthood team. From my perspective, I’m working with the same people on the same general project. It just has a different name and a different URL.

Because it took some time to get the new website up and running, my first post at Exploring Sainthood has yet to appear. In all likelihood, my first post with Exploring Sainthood will be nearly identical to my first post at A Thoughtful Faith, since that one has since been removed. However, for those desperate to read my writings somewhere other than here, you can click here and then pull up my bio. It provides a highly abbreviated version of my spiritual journey thus far.

Stay tuned…

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Can You Spot the Differences?

Look closely at the following two images. Can you spot the 176,873 differences that exist between them?

Monday, July 08, 2013

Eddie Turns Seven

We quickly recovered from a disappointing Fourth of July by celebrating Edison’s 7th birthday this weekend. Eddie had looked forward to his birthday for quite some time, knowing that on his special day he could be the “boss” and tell us what to do. That’s not quite what Melanie and I have taught him, but that’s the way he views things. At some level, it is true. On each child’s birthday, we pretty much let that child call the shots on a moment-by-moment basis. The implicit understanding is that we’ll eat what the birthday boy wants to eat and do one or two fun activities of his choice during the day. Edison started the day by opening presents. He then had us go to Village Inn for breakfast, followed by Zoinks. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is exactly how Peter’s birthday unfolded just two months ago. Creatures of habit, I guess.

The first gift Edison opened was from Peter. Peter came up with the idea of getting Edison a flashlight with flames on it. When he told Melanie this, Melanie wasn’t sure we’d be able to find such a thing. But, lo and behold, Amazon had one. And so, Peter was able to give Eddie exactly what he’d hoped to. Here’s a picture of Edison looking extremely excited about it:

Next up, Eddie opened one of only two gifts he had specifically requested. T-Don the Pteranodon is one of the latest VTech Switch & Go Dinos, which have become quite popular in our home. Creegan is particularly enamored of T-Don. If he gets his hands on it, he will fight to the death to keep it. Poor Eddie has hardly gotten a chance to play with the thing.

“Possession is 9/10ths of the law!” Creegan quips.

The next couple of gifts were suggested by a good friend in Utah. First up is a book from National Geographic Kids titled Ultimate Weird But True: 1,000 Wild & Wacky Facts & Photos! Edison has spent some good time in this book, and he’s even starting to make up his own wacky facts. For instance, did you know that no matter what kind of cereal you buy, there are 25 billion pieces of cereal in each box? Or that a mere four gallons of milk contains 250 billion pounds of milk? Astonishing!

We also bought Edison a puzzle game thing called Perplexus. It’s a ball with various tracks inside through which you must skillfully guide a small steel ball. You do this by tipping and turning the ball as the situation demands. It’s pretty fun, and this has quickly become Peter’s favorite new toy in the house. He spends tons of time with it, so much so that I only have photos of Peter playing with it and not Eddie.


The final gift Eddie received from Melanie and me is an mp3 player. Yup, he’s old enough for it. Thankfully, you can get them pretty cheaply nowadays. Melanie had this idea for a gift after Edison started periodically taking Melanie’s mp3 player and listening to it. Melanie has only loaded her mp3 player with podcasts, so Edison listens to the sample music that was included on her player. When Edison first opened his mp3 player and listened to it, he said, “Hey, this has the same songs as your mp3 player!” He didn’t know you could put new music on there. He’s excited about that.

Eddie was able to open one more gift, which Melanie’s parents had sent him. It’s a foam Minecraft sword. Minecraft, if you’re unaware, is a very popular computer game. Eddie had asked for a Minecraft sword, and if Melanie’s parents hadn’t supplied him with one, we would’ve done so. This worked out well for us and for Eddie.

How is it that Edison looks more excited now than when he first opened the gift? He’s good at looking excited for pictures. Sadly, any photo in which he appears ecstatic is likely to be posed.

Edison was a super sweetie when it came to opening his gifts. He told Peter and Creegan that each of them could help him open two gifts. He also let them jointly help him open a gift, so that all three were involved (as shown in the first Minecraft sword photo above). He’s a considerate kid.

Melanie decorated the house to make it fun, of course. Here are some pics of that:

The label on the chair next to Edison reads: “7 Kisses for Our Sweet 7 Year Old.” Seven Hershey Kisses had been affixed to the chair, but had long been eaten by the time we snapped this photo.

We worried that Village Inn would be crowded at 9am on a Saturday. Not only is it a weekend, but kids eat free at VI on Saturdays. As it turned out, VI wasn’t the least bit busy and we were seated right away. That gave me plenty of time to stew over what to order. (To save you the suspense, I customized an omelet with bacon, spinach, and tomatoes.) The kids opted for Vill-Inn Funny Face pancakes (of course), and Melanie ordered Fruit n’ Grain pancakes. Unlike on Peter’s birthday, there were no mental breakdowns or moments of severe stress and anxiety. It was a pleasant morning.

 Cute photo. Don’t look too hard. Unfortunate timing with Edison’s finger.

After Village Inn, we took to Zoinks, which has become a very standard birthday destination for our kids. If you need a reminder, it’s the place with all the bounce houses. We didn’t take any photos this time around, but if you look back at my post about Peter’s birthday, you’ll get the idea.

We went home after Zoinks. Edison said he wanted to play Kindle for three hours. We let him. At that point, it was 4pm. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and Edison wanted to go to Jason’s Deli “for lunch.” He then wanted us to plan on having chicken patties for dinner. We told him we’d have to do chicken patties the next day if we went to Jason’s Deli, because it was getting too late in the day to plan on eating two more meals. He was cool with that. And so, we went to Jason’s Deli. (Zoinks and Jason’s Deli were a part of Peter’s birthday celebrations last year, by the way.) Somehow, Jason’s Deli was less expensive than Village Inn, despite the fact that two of our kids got a free breakfast at VI.

On our way home from Jason’s Deli, we stopped at Publix (a grocery store) and let Eddie pick out a birthday cake. (We’re saving the homemade—well, homemade from a box—cake for Eddie’s birthday party with friends, which is scheduled for this Tuesday evening.) Edison wanted a chocolate cake, and he wanted something that had a lot of his favorite color (red) on it. Here is the cake Eddie chose:

In case you missed it, the cake is decorated with an oven mitt that reads “BBQ Master” and two kebabs lined with steak, shrimp, and other grilled delights. Melanie and I can do nothing but laugh about this. Eddie was not the least bit interested in any other cakes. This is what he wanted. I must say, I doubt any other 7-year-old has had a similar birthday cake.

Before eating cake, we went swimming. It was really fun. We had the pool to ourselves, and Edison and Peter were pretending we were shrunken and were floating around inside of a toilet from which we were trying to escape.

The flash was off when this picture was snapped. We quickly corrected for this, but this photo is still cuter than the ones that followed.

And that’s Edison’s birthday. As noted above, he does have a couple of friends coming over tomorrow night. It will be a modest little party, but we didn’t want to deny him a chance to have friends over. It should be fun.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Holiday Washouts

Melanie and I skipped Thanksgiving in 2012. A variety of health problems preceded the holiday, and by the time Thanksgiving was upon us, we just weren’t prepared or even all that motivated to go through the rigmarole that a proper celebration would’ve required. Our initial plan was to celebrate Thanksgiving on some future date. We were committed to that idea for quite a while, but eventually we gave up on it. Thanksgiving was too far in the past, and we didn’t even care anymore.

For 2013, it’s Independence Day that didn’t get a proper celebration. Health problems weren’t the downfall, although it didn’t help that my gout flared up this week. It attacked my right ankle, making it stiff and sore for much of Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. (It appeared on Sunday, but wasn’t a big deal until Tuesday.) I felt better on Thursday than on Wednesday, so I was hopeful that hobbling around to watch fireworks wouldn’t be too much of a burden. Mother Nature had other plans, however. It rained, and rained, and rained, and rained, quite heavily, almost the entire day. The breaks were few and far between, and it was drizzling even when it wasn’t a torrential downpour. Melanie and I kept looking things up online to see if fireworks celebrations in the area were going to be cancelled. We couldn’t ever find much information about it, and everything we saw suggested that things would proceed like normal. One article’s sole purpose was to inform readers that rainy 4th of Julys are not the least bit uncommon in Tallahassee, as if nobody should expect it to matter one whit what the clouds in the sky were doing. Melanie and I were skeptical that we would try to see fireworks from anything other than our car, since there was no way the ground wouldn’t be saturated and squishy. But we figured we’d do our best to participate in the festivities, one way or another. And so, just after 8pm, we set out to our preferred Tallahassee fireworks destination in a neighborhood called Shannon Lakes.

When we arrived, a large sign had been posted with “Cancelled” written in big, red letters. We were disappointed but not completely surprised. Shannon Lakes is a smaller venue, and we figured it would be cancelled more readily than would a bigger fireworks show. And so, we decided to drive to Tom Brown Park, which is the premier location for fireworks in Tallahassee. When we saw that the Tom Brown fireworks had also been cancelled, we were more genuinely shocked. We knew of only one other fireworks show in the vicinity, and so we drove toward it, though we now didn’t expect anything. Sure enough, there was nothing to be found. Ironically, the weather was the best it had been all day. We did see a handful of small but colorful explosions as people set off their own modest fireworks, so that was good. Even better, there was almost zero traffic. It’s been nearly two decades since I’ve been able to navigate the streets with so much ease on the night of July 4th.

When we got home, Creegan had fallen asleep. We laid him down, and then we stepped out on the porch with some sparklers that a friend had given us. Eddie and Peter were too nervous to handle the sparklers themselves, but Melanie and I did our best to demonstrate just how much fun they could be having if only they’d muster up some bravery. Once we’d sufficiently burned images of glowing circles into our retinas, we brought our modified 4th of July celebrations to an end. Eddie and Peter went to bed, and Melanie and I made it through almost an entire episode of Sherlock without falling asleep. Then we went to bed ourselves.

Here’s hoping our holiday celebrations get back on track. Heaven knows what kind of a hissy fit I’ll throw if my Labor Day isn’t absolutely mind-blowing.