Saturday, August 30, 2008

Did It Make a Difference?

An amazing summer is coming to a close. We took a Friday afternoon off to enjoy the Minnesota State Fair with some friends. (Glen had never been!) Thursday we took the afternoon off to attend the orientation/open house at the new high school where Glen will be starting this coming Tuesday. But the event that really gave closure to the summer was a small wedding reception we held last Saturday.

It felt somewhat crazy. With the big trips to California and Memphis, and all the chores we had to accomplish in between travels, trying to organize a big fat party at the end of summer at times felt like the one thing we just didn't have the time and energy and money for. We originally had had the intention of sending out a hundred printed invitations, and we ended up just settling for phone calls, emails, and in-person invites to come celebrate with us.

Göran had always complained about the fact that the first time we got married (in 1995), I had never bought him a wedding cake. As we were gearing up to go to California, he continued to bug me about it until I finally promised him, Yes, this time you will have a wedding cake. So the one preparation we had to make was to schlep over to Wuollet Bakery in Uptown during a lunch hour the week before our party. When I saw how much it was going to cost in a size that would be large enough to feed all our potential guests I experienced momentary panic. We've had a lot of expenses this summer, and I didn't realize how much a cake could cost. But I steeled my resolve with memories of my promise, and we paid for the cake in advance, cash on the nail.

I'm glad I did, because when all was said and done, that one extravagance reminded me that there are times when celebration is a necessity. The cake was exquisite (and delicious!), the weather was gorgeous (we held the party outdoors, at nearby Powderhorn Park in South Minneapolis), and our friends were truly gracious. We couldn't afford to pay for much more than the cake (and some sparkling non-alcoholic drinks), so friends helped us celebrate by bringing food. One of the best presents was being united with an old friend from grad school whom I'd lost track of. A mutual acquaintance brought her! There are few joys compared with seeing someone again whom you haven't seen in ages!

Speeches were made, stories were told. We wore the wedding outfits we wore at our 1995 celebration. We showed pictures from our travels, told stories about the reunions with families, out west and down south. There was laughter, eating, lots of big hugs. I had the deeply satisfying experience of being able to introduce a few friends of mine from the ward who had come to celebrate with me to friends from the other parts of my life.

I was so happy! The party helped me to move on, to set all the momentous events of recent months in perspective, to remind myself of what is really important in life. But when all has been said and done, now, a week later, that all the dust has settled, does it really make any difference? Did it matter, going to California to get legally married?

As I have posted elsewhere, it at least gave me pause that shortly after we had solidified our plans to fly out to Riverside, the First Presidency of the LDS Church sent out a letter to all of its California wards asking members to do everything within their power to stop same-sex marriage in California. I know some people will be furious at me for admitting it, but I have had moments even since our California marriage when I've wondered, Could it be true that it is it wrong for us to get married? Why is it that so many people seem so sure that this is a travesty of marriage that ought to be stopped at all costs?

All I can say is what I have observed spiritually. I first asked Göran to go with me to California to get married because from the first moment that opportunity presented itself -- in the wake of the California Supreme Court ruling -- the Spirit spoke to me in a clear, persistent, undeniable way telling me that this was something I needed to do, a commitment I needed to make. It was clear to me that the best and the highest covenants we enter into are often covenants we make in steps. We first have to prove our willingness to make sacrifices for something. We have to consider the costs and the consequences, and then we have to stand up and say, Yes, I will do that. I will commit myself. And it was clear to me that even though temple marriage is not available to us, even though we cannot be sealed by priesthood authority, the thing to do was to make this promise, show this willingness to put my life and my possessions and my sacred honor on the line for this commitment. My eternal soul depended on it. So we did this. And we did it in faith. We did it seeking such blessings of God as the Spirit promised me we were justified in seeking. And the Spirit was richly poured out on us at each step of the journey.

In my prayer life since then, I have noticed a difference. On numerous occasions I have knelt to pray, and have experienced a clear, unmistakable presence of the Spirit ratifying and blessing the commitments we have made. Our Heavenly Father is very, very pleased with us; delighted that we have made these promises to each other and to him. Our relationship is recognized and blessed by him. And there are more and greater blessings and covenants ahead if we stay true to these. It is now for us to continue to grow in this commitment (as we have already grown from lesser light to greater light for the last 16 years of our relationship), to put our lives on the line every single day of our lives to make the world that we live in a better place, to share love and hope with others less fortunate, to walk together in the path of Christ, to become Christs to those around us.

And the Spirit has also made clear to me that in consequence of doing as God has asked us to do, there are spiritual riches I can draw on to bless and strengthen my family. I do not hold the priesthood, but I can pray as a husband and father, I can ask for help and for guidance, and receive strength and spiritual blessings and access to the Spirit that I would not have had available to call upon had I not made these solemn commitments. We have a teenage son to raise, so we need all the blessings we can get!

As I pray, I am reminded that it is not right for me to ask God to make me do what he wants me to do. It is for me to discern what needs to be done, and to commit. So I ask for guidance of the Spirit to help me discern. And then, once I have understood, I must commit. And then, once I have committed, I -- in my weakness and in my humanity -- ask God for the strength to live those commitments. And I can, and do, and have received strength beyond my own, and just as much wisdom as I've needed.

I feel blessed!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Promises Kept

Often we come back from vacation and wonder where the time went. We arrived home from Memphis feeling, in a way, as if we had been away for a life-time. There was a life-time of catching up to be done.

There were aspects of the visit that were heart-breaking. There was such an outpouring of love from Göran's family. "We never stopped thinking about you. Everybody always talked about you," we heard again and again. A cousin confided that Göran's father had never been the same after his wife disappeared with his son and daughter forty years ago. They had never seen Göran's father so happy now that his son had returned. The joy was shadowed by the sense of an unrecoverable loss of forty years. But at least there was this joyous reunion.

My most prized souvenir from the trip is the little black notebook I kept at my fingertips throughout the entire visit. Into the notebook went names and relationships, addresses, and stories. It became a wonderful way of breaking the ice with family members. They would mention a name, and I would stop them and say, "Who's that? How's she related?" The answer: "Oh, she's Vera's daughter." And the follow-up question: "But I thought Quin was Vera's mother?" "That's Quin Ivy. They named the daughter after her grandmother." And so on.

There were stories about family long-dead too. Aunt Dottie was always pointing out photos of ancestors. One such photo was of Art Gossett and Lula Bradbury, grandparents of Göran's grandmother. We didn't have photos of their parents, but we had their names recorded in a family book: Nat Gossett and his wife Emma, Josh Bradbury and his wife Polly Robinson -- the first generation in that family line to be freed from slavery. Another photo was of a couple we knew only as the "Olivers," also born slaves, and the first in their line to be free. Another photo was of a distinguished looking gentleman with a long white beard: Andy Ivy, born a slave in 1848. Andy Ivy had twenty-seven children by three wives. The first child, Mary, was born in 1868, and the last, Pearle, still living in a nursing home in Alabama, was born in 1916. Göran has a living relative who is one generation from slavery.

An expansive sense of family persists among Göran's relatives in Memphis. It was one of the challenges of keeping track of everybody. Second cousins, third cousins, even fourth and fifth cousins with various degrees of removal were all just referred to as "cousin." We were told of family connections to Lena Horne, Isaac Hayes, George Foreman, Michael Jordan, and Jackie Joyner Kersie. When I probed into the exact nature of a particular relationship, they could always tell me. "Oh, that's Eloise's sister Ecola's boy." There are frequent family reunions, every year or every other year depending on the family. Knowing one's kin, and honoring some sense of reciprocity between kin is extremely important.

By the end of our stay, I had taken note of some 180 family members, both living and dead, all of whom I entered into a genealogy program on my computer before the end of our visit.

Over time I began to understand the implicit promise between Göran and his family; the reason why he had never been forgotten, even after forty years of absence; the reason why his grandmother kept his picture and his sister's picture on a small altar in her hallway, and never stopped praying to see them again before she died; why there was such a large crowd of people waiting at the end of his Aunt Dottie's driveway, and why they surged around us and threw their arms around us as we emerged from the car at her house for the first time.

"I was so afraid he would think we just threw him away," she said, "But we never stopped thinking about him."

We went on three major outings in Memphis. The first was to the grave of "FreeJoe" Harris, Göran's oldest known progenitor, his fifth great grandfather, where we met with distant cousin Earnest Lacey, the author of FreeJoe's biography. The second was to the National Civil Rights Museum, with Göran's Aunt Dottie, who shared with us her first-hand observations of living through this era, both in Memphis and in other parts of the country, and where we learned of the participation by the man who raised her and Göran's father in the "I AM A MAN" sanitation workers' protests in Memphis. The third was to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music with Göran's dad, where we learned about the subtle interconnections between black history and culture and the twentieth-century struggle for freedom.

In between the outings were visit's at his father's home, at his Aunt Dottie's home, at his grandmother's home. His grandmother had a huge collection of photographs which we examined together one by one while she and Dottie and Göran's dad told us stories. Inexplicably, Göran's mother had written letters to his grandmother with no return address. Göran found photographs which he immediately recognized as having been taken in Burlington, Iowa, that were labeled on the back as "Port of Spain, Trinidad" or "Porto Rico" (sic). His grandma also let me photograph and take notes from the family Bible, and from various family books. And we had stories and pictures to show as well...!

This was a week-long crash course in history and culture and family, and it was overwhelming. It was emotionally and spiritually exhausting, yet exciting and invigorating at the same time. Toward the end of the tour of the National Civil Rights Museum, there was a film about the connection between the African American civil rights struggle, and struggles for human rights throughout the world. Desmond Tutu was featured, and he spoke of how you cannot know who you are if you do not know your history. We held hands and wept quietly together as we listened to his words. Göran finally knows his history. He knows his place in the world. He knows who he is.

Goodbyes were emotionally impossible. I couldn't bear the look in his father's eyes. The only way we could deal with it was to begin making plans for the next visit. It was "See you later!" There was a promise in our departure; a commitment to keep all the promises that brought him back after forty years, all the promises they kept in embracing us lovingly and unconditionally -- me and Glen as well as Göran -- because of the promises Göran and I have made to each other, and because of the promises we have made to Glen.

Then there was the sight of them all standing at the end of Aunt Dottie's driveway and waving at us until we disappeared around the corner. Memphis is too far from Minneapolis! But it is close enough!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Power of Kinship

We're in Memphis right now visiting Goran's long lost biological family.

They are AMAZING. A HUGE extended kin network. They highly value family, education, hard work... Last night we met his father, one of his half sisters, his grandmother, one of his aunts and three of his cousins and a 2nd cousin. They are all gentle, loving, FUN people (we laughed together until we cried!) His father has an amazing sense of humor and is a warm, gentle, kind man who made us all feel at home instantly. There were so many tears shed at the first reunion. We were up late telling each other stories, and putting together the pieces of the puzzle we each respectively held, trying figure out together why Goran's mother took him away from all this when he was just four...

He and his father look so much alike. They showed us pictures of his father, his mother (whom we instantly recognized in the pictures) and Göran. Göran is the spitting image of his father (whom everybody calls "Junior" and "Uncle Daddy") when he was younger. They showed us an album of photos from his grandfather's funeral (just last January), and "Junior" is the spitting image of his father! Amazing!

What was even more uncanny was everything that Göran and his father have in common: their love of cooking and experimenting with exotic food dishes, and their love of gadgets and the latest in technology.

We're all going to church together later this morning (at a local Baptist church!) then we get together at his Aunt Dottie's house for more talk, stories, laughter and FOOD! We have been here less than 24 hours, and we feel like we've known them our whole lives. They said they never stopped looking for Goran and his sister; now they are just incredibly happy to have him back again.

One of his cousins down here is coming up to Minneapolis, because she is getting a degree at Capella University. She teaches English at a charter middle school down here. They have annual family reunions, so we anticipate coming down here again and again... What an amazing experience!

All of the pieces are gradually coming together. What has been lost has been found! What has been broken is being restored! We are so blessed!

More later!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Wait for It

I'm gradually coming to the conviction that there are three types of people in the world: the empire-builders, the servants, and everyone else who hasn't figured out what they are yet.

The empire-builders are the number one source of problems in the world. They have tin ears, or tone deafness. Or they are making too much noise of their own to hear what's going on around them. They are internally driven, you can grant them that much. They set their eyes on something and they "go for it." But the empires they build are their own, destined for dust, and the most successful ones leave a wasteland of corpses and rivers of blood in their wake.

The primary challenge for the servants is refusing service to the wrong empire. They usually end up making a living working for one of the empire-builders, since the latter are the movers and shakers. But they can't ultimately give their hearts to that service, because there's only one empire worth giving one's heart to. There's a discipline in learning to wait; not allowing oneself to get enlisted in the wrong cause. That is why saints often become martyrs. Why they must often draw a line in the sand and say, "Here I stand, I can do no other." And, "It is better to serve God than men."

But even in the right cause, the central discipline to hone is still waiting. That's why in all the great hero myths, the protagonist must learn a kind of passivity. Yoda and Obi Wan counsel Luke not to tap into his aggression; that will only lead to the dark side. They advise instead patience, waiting, careful training, preparation. And of course, sufficient stillness so that he can discern the movements of the force. Superman can only use his super powers in certain ways; the great temptation is to use his powers in ways that serve his own ends rather than some higher purpose. Batman cannot kill the bad guys no matter how bad they are; even if it means that they inevitably escape from Gotham Prison or Arkham Asylum only to wreak more havoc and death! He can only keep rounding them up -- and trying to convert them through example. That's the way heroes operate. Because heroes are always in the service of a "higher" cause, a cause not their own.

We can't force things, even when it seems like the direction we are forcing is a good one. The best thing we can do is listen, hold back. There will come a time to act, and when it does, we will know it and we will act decisively. Until then, there is only one thing to do.

Wait for it.

Monday, August 4, 2008

This World's God

Sung to the tune of the sea chanty "A Hundred Years Ago"

Oh, a hundred years is a very long time!
Oh, yes, oh!
A hundred years is a very long time!
A hundred years ago!

Well, this world's god has feet of clay!
Oh, yes, oh!
O'er us he held unchallenged sway
A hundred years ago!

There is a stone cut without hands!
Oh, yes, oh!
Begun to roll through many lands
A hundred years ago!

The true God calls in voice so clear!
Oh, yes, oh!
Yet we've only just begun to hear
A hundred years ago!

So listen to the Spirit's song!
Oh, yes, oh!
Don't wait like those who waited too long
A hundred years ago!