Shadow Sides

I’m woke. I finally get it. And my awakening came during church yesterday morning.

The speakers gave talks on topics such as love, forgiveness, and following Christ. While sitting there, a character in a short story I’d just read came to mind—Mr. Stovall, a deacon in the Baptist church. In the story, Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun,” a black woman asks him when he’s going to pay her: “When you going to pay me, white man? When you going to pay me, white man? It’s been three times now since you paid me a cent—” Mr. Stovall knocked her down and kicked out her teeth.

Nancy spent the night in jail, attempting suicide toward morning. When the jailer found her, “Nancy was hanging from the window, stark naked, her belly already swelling out a little like a little balloon.” After he revived her, the jailer “beat her, whipped her.”

Barely into the story, I knew

  • that Nancy is black, 
  • that people (including Mr. Stovall, the Baptist deacon) use and abuse her, 
  • that she’s expecting a baby, 
  • and that there’s something sketchy about this pregnancy. 

Who’s the father? We soon learn that it’s not her husband, a man who says white men are allowed to come freely into his house but that he can’t go into theirs. Jesus, the husband, is angry and wants to kill Nancy—or so she believes. Is it because of her behavior or because of his own powerlessness over the abominable situation that exists?

Does Jesus know the father is white? Yes, and so does the reader. The fact that Faulkner makes a point of the interaction between Nancy and Mr. Stovall implies that Stovall is the father—or that it’s someone like him, some respectable white Christian.

But wait. Aren’t Christians supposed to love one another regardless of race or creed? Yes. everyone knows that. And yet. And yet here’s the poor, scared, powerless, penniless black woman carrying a white man’s baby (against her will) who gets her teeth knocked out by a white man who’s quite possibly the baby’s father. And he’s parading around as a Christian. And her husband plans to kill her because of her situation.

Some people see Christians as hypocritical and scary. Honestly, I can understand the hypocritical aspect a little. A bit hypocritical myself, I struggle with always being fair, loving, kind, generous, and forgiving. At the same time, I have to hold back when I hear a Christian dissing someone of another race or religion when they themselves are often cruel, bigoted, and judgmental. I have friends who dislike Mexicans, Muslims, Indians, Hindus, Syrians, Jews, transgender, gay, and any and everybody else whom they either (1) don’t understand or (2) feel superior to. 

My husband has a friend who used to say, “That ain’t right, Bo. That ain’t right.” Although his comments weren’t related to Mr. Stovall types of behavior, they align with the current hate mongering. Being okay with white supremacy and condoning racism, sexism, and all other isms that demonstrate hate, not love, just “ain’t right.”

So here’s my epiphany from yesterday. Neither Mr. Stovall nor thousands like him have personal insight into their shadow sides. They can’t see themselves with a clear eye. And nor can I. Fortunately, I have people in my life who can and do try to help me see the light. I say “try” because I, like you, am a work in progress.

Joel Osteen’s Message

I wish I could have come up with a snappier title, but I can’t.

Unless I’m traveling or sick, I usually make it to church on Sunday mornings, not because I’m a holy roller but because I need help. I understand all about loving one another, turning the other cheek, and practicing forgiveness, but there’s something about being in the midst of like-minded people (and sinners) that reinforces my desire to go from okay to good to better to best in thought and deed.

But yesterday we were traveling, and I found myself feeling a little fidgety and ill-at ease. I needed the communion of my church friends to buoy me up. I wanted to hear some beautiful hymns and ponder the mysteries of life and death and what comes after our tenure here on Earth…and what came before. I could have read about all those things and more, but reading wasn’t sufficient yesterday.

As we cruised along towards home, I recalled an article I’d read about Joel Osteen the day before and decided to listen to one of his podcasts. According to Success magazine, he’s “the most popular minister on the planet” and has a net worth between 40 and 60 million dollars. In addition to being able to pay bills, Osteen’s idea of prosperity includes having good relationships, feeling peace, and being able to bless someone else.

I know a lot of people don’t like him. They say he’s more into optimism and positive psychology than into theology. “A motivational speaker with a religious bent,” Osteen stays away from heavy discussions of Satan and hell. Maybe that’s why I like him.

Oops, the cat’s out of the bag. I do sort of like him, probably because he thinks like I do in some ways. I too feel that a person’s thoughts are central in determining destiny, and Joel says, “Your life follows your thoughts.” It’s not rocket science, but there’s truth in that simple statement.

Osteen’s philosophy is akin to cognitive psychology. As Norman Vincent Peale said, “Change your thoughts and change your world.” He wasn’t a psychologist, but he was, like Osteen, a minister, one who focused on the power of thoughts. Detractors would say that positive thinking is more of an armchair activity while positive psychology is aligned with replicable scientific activity, and they’d be correct. Still….

But back to Joel Osteen. His 10.5 million dollar house bothers some people, and while that doesn’t endear me to him, it doesn’t completely turn me off either. I realize that everything’s relative. I have acquaintances who live in houses worth between three and four hundred thousand dollars and some who live in mobile homes, apartments, and condos. All have homes more spacious, safe, and comfortable than many (most?) of the world’s population.

As I wrote the above sentence, I recalled a sign outside of Food for the Soul that I saw this morning. Positioned out near the street so that passers-by could see it, the sign announced that the homeless shelter would be open tonight. 

I missed being in church yesterday, but I like thinking, “You have gifts and talents in you right now that you haven’t tapped into.” There are so many people who need to hear that message, so many people I could share it with. While I would have heard and been inspired by speakers, prayers, hymns, and hugs had I been in a chapel with others yesterday, I might not have heard Osteen’s message.

And maybe his is the one I most needed to hear…and share.

Ask an Expert

If this post seems underdeveloped or unpolished, blame it on Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. I read that book about a year ago, and today I discovered her podcast, Happier, that she and her sister Elizabeth have started.

When describing the one coin loophole, the sisters said that if a person does something rarely, then she feels like it has to be top quality. If, on the other hand, she does it often, that takes the pressure off and she can live with “pretty good” when something is a little lame.

That’s so true of me, I thought. I have dozens of things I want to write about, but being involved in several projects has decreased my blogging time. When I finally do have thirty minutes to an hour to put something together, I feel the pressure to make it (the post) good. Tonight, however, I’m remembering Gretchen’s (first name basis here) mention of Voltaire’s aphorism: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Tonight I’m taking the advice of the Happier podcast.

While in the beauty shop the other day, I recognized a woman who works for a local optometrist. Making small talk, I told her that I had always been impressed with her ability to put contacts in my eyes without my even knowing she had done it. She’s that good!

“Make sure the tip of your finger is dry,” she said, “and put a small drop of solution on the contact itself. Just a drop.”

Later that same day I met with a young woman who knows all about chalk painting. She’s done (painted, waxed, distressed) dozens of pieces and is now teaching classes in which she demonstrates techniques using Annie Sloan products.

 “I’m doing a side table,” I told her. “And it seems somehow ‘not right’ to use wax on the top.”

“Will it get a lot of use? I mean, are people going to put drinks or food on it?” she asked

“Maybe. I can just visualize kids putting all kinds of things on it. Stresses me out to think about!”

“Okay, here’s what you do. Put a coat of clear poly on the top.”

“That’s it?”

“Yep. That’ll protect it and give it some sheen.”

Today I went to Lowe’s to buy some tile. I must have looked lost and confused because an employee walked over to see if she could help. When I told her my plans, she told me exactly what I’d need and explained why I needed this and not that with several products. After learning that I’d be putting this backsplash up all by my lonesome, she explained the process twice and then suggested that I get a trowel.

Everybody knows something. Everybody is likely an expert on something. BUT no one knows everything. Let’s respect the knowledge of the experts.

All this is leading up to a recent discussion about the Mormon church—or as we prefer to say, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” People often inform me of some pretty outrageous things, including:

  • Mormons aren’t Christians.
  • Mormons practice polygamy.
  • Mormons don’t believe in the Bible.
  • Mormons wear magic underwear.
  • Mormons think they can work their way into heaven.
  • Mormons worship Joseph Smith.

None of those things are true. My purpose here isn’t to go into a long diatribe about what we do or don’t believe. My purpose is to say that unless you’re a member, you don’t really know what we do or don’t believe.

If I want to know something about putting in contacts, chalk painting furniture, or installing a backsplash, I’ll ask someone with knowledge in those areas. The same is true for religion. If I want to know something about the Catholic religion, I’ll ask a Catholic. If I want to know about Islam, I’ll ask a Muslim.

If you want to know something about the LDS religion, ask me. In the meantime, when I hear you saying something untrue, unfounded, or derogatory about the church, I’ll be thinking, “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” That’s a line from Moonrise Kingdom, something an orphan told his sweet little girlfriend after she told him that sometimes she wanted to be an orphan.

While this isn’t my best post ever, I’m glad I took the advice from the Happier podcast. Saving up thoughts and refusing to share them until I could do so perfectly and eloquently might prevent their ever being shared. And really, I’m feeling happier now, just like the experts on happiness said I would be.

 

Chocolate and a Warm Home

This is my catch-all blog, the one where I can rant and rave and vent and expound as much as my heart desires. It’s not centered on one theme like religion, politics, families, or cooking.

You’re as likely to read something about exercise here as about the poverty in Burundi and how embarrassed I sometimes feel to have so much when those folks have so little. I just ate a piece of chocolate with almonds and am wondering how widespread that delectable treat is in one of the poorest countries in the world.

Oops, I strayed from my topic. Since I can write about anything I want to on this blog, today I’m focusing on love.

I never leave church without feeling spiritually energized. The peace and love that surrounds me is palpable. I kid you not. Then there are those lessons and talks and hymns that never fail to touch, educate, or affect me in some way. On Sunday, one of the teachers mentioned one little sentence  that I keep thinking of, especially in light of a couple of situations that have been troubling me lately.

Here’s what she said: “The essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ is love.” While that’s something that I already knew, I needed to be reminded of it. If you say you love God but make disparaging remarks about people of other races, ethnic groups, or social classes, you might want to examine your heart. If that sounds snarky, it’s because I need to work on that love thing too, and that realization puts me on the defensive.

I don’t have a problem with loving people who are “different” from me. I sincerely believe that we’re all brothers and sisters of the same Heavenly Father and that He doesn’t love me more because I’m a white middle-class person with the good fortune to have been born in America. Instead, I think He might actually expect more of me because of those reasons. “To whom much is given, much is required” and all that.

Lately I’ve been full of that loving feeling—for my family. My son and his wife just had a new baby, and I’m already in love with her little rosebud face. I enjoyed staying with the family and taking care of the little ones last week and am looking forward to doing more of the same soon.

There’s more. I helped someone with some troubling internet connections last week, and I cut some of my students some slack when they missed their due dates. I cooked a delicious pot of chili for my husband yesterday, but really, Y’all, that was easy stuff and required little exertion on my part.

But there are a couple of situations going on in my neighborhood that I’m concerned about. What am I doing to ameliorate them? Nothing. Nada. Not a darned thing except talk about them with my husband and friends. Talk is cheap. And yet, when does one know when to cross the line between minding your own business and helping someone who’s cold, hungry, neglected, or _______________?

This morning I’m sitting in my nice cozy home watching the gas logs flicker and flame while I know for a fact that one of my neighbors has no electricity. There are other sad scenarios being acted out all over town. I’m thinking of how the Savior (sorry if I offend anyone here) was virtually homeless during the last few years of His life, and yet that didn’t stop Him from helping and healing and doing good.

What am I doing? Nothing yet. Just writing and thinking.

What’s the answer? I don’t know, but I think kindness and compassion go a long way, and that’s something I can do more of. It’s a start, right?

 

Waiting for the Rat to Die

When I was a young mother and had to miss church for some reason or another I always felt a tinge of remorse. My mother would often say, “The church isn’t going to fall down if you miss one Sunday, Jaynie.”

I knew that. And truthfully, I wasn’t worried about the church. I was worried about good old Jaynie. I needed help and guidance and support. And I needed to feel the love that was there. I didn’t want to fall down.

I remembered that conversation a week or so ago when I went to church despite being stressed out with preparation for a family reunion. Laugh if you want to, but for me, food preparation on that level is a stretch. Plus, because of the time of the reunion, I knew I’d have to leave right after Sacrament, and I found myself wondering, “Is it really worth it to get dressed and hustle to the church for only an hour?”

I went. And as soon as I walked in the back door from the parking lot, I felt peace. I slid in beside my former mother-in-law who told me she had been saving a seat for me. While that wasn’t exactly true, her statement made me feel good and happy and all of those other positive emotions. While we were singing the opening hymn, I remembered something I had read years ago.

If you make the effort to listen, the Spirit will speak to you. It might not even be about what the speaker is saying. But you’ll know it. You’ll get the message.

So we were singing “In Humility Our Savior,” and when we got to the second verse, I got choked up on these beautiful phrase “Fill our hearts with sweet forgiving, teach us tolerance and love.” Some specific situations were on my mind, and I thought “YES!” How could I convey the importance of this forgiveness, tolerance, and love to others without being a know-it-all self-righteous prig?

And then I was sitting there minding my own business when the thought “seventy times seven” popped into my head. I don’t think I’m holding on to grudges right now, but some people are. Let it go. Harboring feelings of unforgiveness and resentment are like eating rat poison and waiting for the rat to die. I didn’t make that phrase up, but I like it.

I looked around me and saw all sorts of people. Big ones, small ones, rich ones, poor ones, black ones, white ones, brown ones, pink ones. Lots of variety. I thought of a friend who teaches at BYU-Hawaii who once mentioned that most of the women wear flip flops to church. She said many of the teachers kick them off while teaching and teach barefoot. I smiled to myself and thought, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” The whole world, not just the select few who happen to look like you and mirror your background.

That was the first Sunday in June. I’ve had a lot of interesting insights sitting in church since then too, especially about love. What about you?

Involvement or Interference?

Pelicans

Because of a project I’ve been working on, I’ve become reacquainted with some of the women of the Bible. Although I knew about them and their families and histories, rereading their stories has given me additional insight into their courage and faith. The two women I’m referring to are Jochebed and Hannah.

In case your memory of Jochebed is a little sketchy, my version of her story is that she gave birth to Moses at a time when Pharaoh had ordered that all Hebrew baby boys be murdered. The midwives refused to do this, and they lied to Pharaoh, saying that the Hebrew women were vigorous and strong and that they gave birth before a mid-wife had time to arrive.

Jochebed kept Moses close by for three months, but when he began to grow and become more active, she knew that she couldn’t keep him quiet forever. Trusting that God would preserve him, Jochebed put her sweet baby in a basket covered with tar and placed him in the Nile River. She knew that Pharaoh’s daughter came to bathe there and trusted that the princess would rescue Moses.

When the princess spotted the baby, she felt compassion on him, and although she wanted to raise him as her own (my take on it), she knew that such a small baby would need a nursemaid. Out comes Miriam, Moses’ sister, from behind the bulrushes and tells Pharaoh’s daughter that she knows someone who will nurse and nurture the baby until he can be weaned. The princess agrees to this arrangement.

The day of separation for Moses and Jochebed comes at last, and he is raised in Pharaoh’s palace with many advantages, including an education that prepares him for his vital leadership role as an Israelite leader.

What would have happened if Jochebed had said NO to letting him go?

Hannah is the other mother on my mind. She had wanted a child for years, and yet she remained childless. Although her husband Elkanah never complained about her childless state, she was grieved by it, especially when she saw the children who had been born to Elkanah and his first wife.

When Hannah and Elkanah traveled to Shiloh, she went to the temple to pray for a child. Eli the Priest, after inquiring about what he perceived to be her drunken state, learned of Hannah’s fervent desire for a child and of her promise to give him to the Lord “all the days of his life.”

Eli told Hannah to go in peace and promised that God would grant her petition. She trusted in that assurance completely, and after Samuel was weaned, Hannah kept her word. It must have been difficult to turn her precious little son over to Eli, but Hannah felt that Samuel was indeed a gift from God and wanted to turn he over to Him.

The day of separation for Hannah and Samuel came at last, and she went back to the tabernacle and presented the child to Eli to be raised there. I don’t know how often she saw her son after that day. Some speculate that she visited him regularly. I don’t know. I do know that (to me) it gives deeper meaning to the oft-cited phrase, “Let go and let God.”

What would have happened if Hannah had said NO to turning Samuel over to Eli?

Moses grew up to be one of the most influential men in all history, a man whom the Lord knew “face to face.” He led the Israelites out of Egypt and later gave us, through God, the Ten Commandments. Samuel was a remarkable man whom God used as a great prophet and judge of Israel.

I can’t help but wonder what their lives would have been like if their mothers had continued to keep them close or to meddle in their lives. Sociologists and psychologists study a social phenomenon called helicopter parents who hover over their children, even adult ones, ready to swoop down and take over regardless of age or of the child’s abilities, desires, or predilections.

Sometimes it’s hard to know when to step back and when to become involved. And sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between involvement and interference. I have no answers to this dilemma. I just know that we might never have heard of Moses or Samuel if their mothers hadn’t turned them over.

What do you think? How can mothers know when to when to let go? How do they stay on the involvement side without crossing over into interference?

Less Debate, More Love

I met Ahmed about 20 years ago. I’d never seen or known anyone like him in my entire life. Quiet and attentive, he was a student in one of my classes. One day I distributed a handout of a dozen commonly used clichés as a way of introducing the topic of the day, communication, and I was a little surprised when Ahmed didn’t get a single one right. Didn’t people from Egypt know what “as the crow flies” meant?

After graduation, Ahmed was hired by the college to work in the IT department, and one of his primary duties was to help instructors who were teaching what we called teleclasses. Since we had three campuses, this teaching format allowed us to transmit our classes from one campus to the other two, thus cutting down on travel time and allowing more student needs to be met.

That’s when I really got to know this outstanding young man. His huge brown eyes and serene demeanor were arresting, and his calm competence impressed everyone. One day as he was working with me, he seemed a little weak, and I asked if Ahmed if he wanted to break for lunch. He said no and remarked that it was Ramadan and that he had not yet become accustomed to the day long fast.

Being nosey, I had to ask what that was. I learned that Ramadan is a sacred month of the year, a period in which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Fasting encourages spiritual reflection and takes the focus off of worldly activities. It also helps one develop more compassion and empathy for the less fortunate, thus increasing charity towards others.

Intrigued, I purchased The World’s Religions by Huston Smith and my awakening began.Some more serious scholars may scoff at Smith’s work, but if not for his easy-to-understand and comprehensive overview of the world’s major religions, I might still be a narrow-minded Southern gal who understood God only in the way I had been taught.

Recently I read Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being and fell in love with (talk about clichés!) her writing and perspective. Towards the end of the book, Dillard brings up an incident that involved the disappearance of a child on a school field trip. On May 4, 1995, Suri Feldman and her classmates were in a state park in CT. Suri wandered away from the group, and her absence was noticed when it was time to load the buses and leave.

Concern was especially high because of the murder of a young girl a few months prior. The missing child was Jewish, and here’s what happened. “Among the thousand volunteers searching for Suri Feldman were six hundred Hasidim, bearded men in black three-piece suits, who drove from New York, from Montreal, Boston, and Washington, D.C.” When Suri was found a few days later, thirsty but fine, “the Hasids in the woods danced.”

When the vehicle bearing her drove into the Brooklyn parking lot, it could scarcely move. Hasids filled the lot, Hasids in black coats from the eighteenth century and black beards and black hats. A local volunteer said, “I’ve never seen so many people dance in a circle.”

The LDS community is pretty tight, and yet I marvel at the concern and support for Suri and her family. Two of the tenets of our faith are family and service to others, and we earnestly strive to walk the talk. Still, what support there was for this family! To me, it’s “pure religion, undefiled.”

Hmmm. Where was I? What was the point of these stories? Truth is everywhere. Why do some people want to argue points of doctrine and berate others’ way of worshipping? It’s pointless and ineffective.

 Why can’t we just love one another?