Thursday, May 28, 2009

Following All the Rules

Last week, a man was killed in downtown Minneapolis while biking to work. I took particular notice of this accidental death because I too bike to work every day in downtown Minneapolis, and in fact I ride down the same bike lane that this biker was riding down when he was killed. In fact, I passed over the very spot where he died not more than 15 minutes before he was killed. Every day I have ridden to work since, I have noted the yellow lines spray-painted on the road by investigators on the spot where this young, 30-something man met his end.

When I heard about this tragic accident and where it happened, I immediately thought I knew what had happened. Along the section of road where the accident occurred, the blocks are very short, and there is a stoplight on every intersection. The lights are timed so that if you are biking a certain speed, you can make all of them, but if you are going slightly slow, you may get stuck one or more times. Downtown is just to the left of this stretch of road, so cars are frequently making left turns, cutting across the bike lane, and drivers often forget to signal their turns, or only signal at the last minute. The combination of bikers wanting to hurry to make all the lights, and cars wanting to turn left, cutting in front of bikers, is an accident waiting to happen. Especially if the bikers or the drivers are not diligent in following the rules of the road.

As a devoted biker, it is a sad thing to have to admit that most of the bicyclists I observe are not particularly scrupulous about obeying the rules of the road. I frequently see bikers not wearing helmets or using signals, blowing through red lights, riding the wrong way down a one-way street, improperly cutting across lanes, and riding in an otherwise erratic and irresponsible manner. So when I heard about the accident last week, I readily assumed that this particular biker met his untimely end due to his own carelessness.

But later, I read a more detailed account of the accident in the paper. Friends and family of this individual knew him as unusually devoted to biking and particularly responsible and attentive to the rules of the road. An eye-witness of the accident testified that the young man who died had in fact been following all the rules at the time of his death.

He was hit by an unusually large semi. I saw a picture of the truck in the paper, and noted that the tires of the truck were almost as tall as a man. Apparently, because of its unusual size, the truck was obliged to make a turn that was much wider than normal. Thus, to the bicycle rider, it may have seemed that the truck was moving forward when in fact it was getting ready to turn. The driver of the truck was up so high, and his vehicle so large, he probably never saw the bike. When the truck did turn, one of those huge wheels bore down on the bicyclist, killing him instantly.

In this case, as far as investigators could discern, everyone -- the bicyclist as well as the truck driver -- was following all the rules of the road to the best of his ability. It was just an unusual situation that couldn't possibly be anticipated by the rules. The accident was easily avoidable, but would have taken extra caution, extra awareness, extra discernment to avoid. In fact, it is quite possible that the rules may have blinded each participant in this drama to the danger at hand. The confidence of each that rules were all that was needed to keep everybody safe may have kept each from paying attention to the very real danger literally just around the corner. I think about this now, every morning, as I pass those spray-painted yellow lines on the intersection of 14th and Park on my way to work.

Sometimes our lives are like that. Some of us are minding our business, riding our bike to work next to an unusually large semi. We may think that all we need to do to protect ourselves is follow all the rules. But in our case, the rules won't help us. The only thing that will help us is keeping our eyes and ears open, watching and waiting and responding.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Still Married

I was prepared for the possibility that our marriage would be legally nullified. It didn't seem likely. Still it was a possibility.

Our marriage certificate is displayed in a frame in our bedroom, next to a picture from our wedding. My sister-in-law Becky composed a poem for us, written inside a hand-made wedding card, and we've framed that and displayed it there as well. After Prop 8 passed, I would occasionally look at the framed certificate on the wall, and wonder if it had been transformed into a worthless scrap of paper. I wondered if we'd some day get another letter in the mail from the Riverside County Clerk's Office informing us that we were no longer married. It was a painful thought. For a while, I actually avoided looking at that part of the bedroom wall.

Still, few things in my life have ever been more clear to me than that getting married was the right thing to do. Few impressions I've received from the Spirit have been as clear and bright and strong as the impression that said to me: "Get to California as soon as you are able, and get married!" It was the right thing to do, regardless of what might have happened subsequently.

I'm grateful that the Supreme Court of California saw fit to keep faith with us and with and some 18,000 others who entered into legal covenants last year. Ultimately, for me, keeping faith is what this is all about: between me and my husband, between us and our son, between us and our families and our communities, and of course between us and the state. Not least, we keep faith with God by abiding in love that we express through enduring commitment.

The State of California might have broken faith with us. It still might. But it won't change my obligation to love, faithfully.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Gospel According to Roddenberry

Göran and I are self-avowed, open, practicing Trekkies. Yes, we feel that by embracing the "Trekkie" label, it becomes a term of self-empowerment. And yes, when the Star Trek convention comes to town, we put on all our regalia and march downtown for all the world to see our Trek pride. And yes, we saw the movie (twice) in the first weekend it was out, and, yes, we loved it. In fact, we're "old school" Trekkies. We've been fans of the show since we were little kids, and for us, the "real" Star Trek will always be Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, "Bones," Lieutenant Uhura, Mr. Scott, Mr. Sulu, and Ensign Chekov, outsmarting Klingons and Romulans, and boldly going where no man has gone before.

Now that I'm done teaching (the end of the semester is always a bear, which is why I haven't blogged in a while), we have time to watch the old series again. We've had it for years on VHS and recently upgraded to the digitally remastered version on DVD -- which is beautiful. Last night we watched two episodes in particular that struck me as amazingly relevant to aspects of the human condition that I've been pondering on lately.

"Charlie X" and "Where No Man Has Gone Before" are both stories that remind us of the limited, frail and mortal nature of human existence, and explore the question of what might happen to us if somehow those limits were removed, and we suddenly had immortality and/or virtually unlimited power. I realized for the first time watching these episodes last night that this question is of particular relevance to a Mormon theological context in which we affirm the human potential and destiny to become "like God."

"Charlie X" felt particularly relevant to me and Göran, occasionally finding ourselves, as we do, at wit's end with the challenges of caring for a seventeen-year-old boy. The "Charlie" character was marooned as a three-year-old child on an alien planet, and taken in by a race of incorporeal beings that endowed him with super powers in order to enable him to survive on his own. When he is discovered by a Federation ship at the age of 17, his human rescuers don't realize until too late that though Charlie is mentally and emotionally a teenager, he has almost unlimited powers of life and death.

Like most teens, Charlie desperately wants to be liked, but he has a difficult time navigating the emotional challenges of human interaction. He's also overwhelmed by the needs and urges that come with sexual maturity. Charlie develops intense admiration for Captain Kirk, who becomes a kind of role model for him. Some of the lines Charlie utters have been spoken almost word-for-word by our own teenage son. "Why does it feel like I hurt inside all the time?" "What if she won't like me?"

Of course with most teens there are natural limits to what they can do with their anger or their loneliness. Life has a way of forcing them through the emotional crucible of adolescence, and requiring them to come to terms with the most painful emotions it is possible to face. Some of us cope better than others. The fact that teen suicide is such a problem reminds us how perilous these emotions combined with a sense of powerlessness can be, and reminds us of the importance for teens of being surrounded and encouraged by loving guides and role-models.

In Charlie's case, there are no natural limits. So if somebody hurts Charlie's feelings, Charlie can just make them "go away." After Charlie has made enough of the Enterprise's crew members "go away," the adults in his life can no longer be effective guides and role-models, because they live in mortal fear of Charlie. And without discipline, the wild emotions of adolescence become a destructive storm, threatening everyone and everything with complete annihilation.

In the episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before," the same theme of unlimited power coexisting with mortal frailty is explored again, when Lieutenant Commander Gary Mitchell, an old friend of Captain Kirk, is endowed with god-like super powers after the Enterprise is hit by a mysterious space storm. Mitchell, unfortunately, is lacking in empathy and compassion, and once he becomes aware of the full extent of his powers, he begins to view people as objects to be played with or manipulated for his own pleasure. In the climactic confrontation between Mitchell and Kirk at the end of the episode, Captain Kirk reminds him, "Of all traits, compassion is the one that cannot be lacking in a god!"

Both episodes are dramatic demonstrations of the principle described in Doctrine and Covenants section 121, which reminds us that with great power comes great responsibility. They remind us how blessed we are, in a sense, by the natural limits on our power as human beings, that force us to come to terms with difficult drives and difficult emotions, and that teach us the humility and compassion without which power can only be a wild and destructive force.

The scene at the end of "Charlie X" is particularly poignant, when the Thasians -- the race of incorporeal beings that endowed Charlie with super power -- arrive to take him away again. Charlie pleads with the Thasians not to take him away. He wants to be with his own kind, with human beings who have bodies to touch and hug, who are capable of loving and being loved in physical ways. Despite the fact that Charlie X has unleashed terrible powers of destruction on his crew, Captain Kirk feels compassion for Charlie, and also pleads with the Thasians. "We can teach him!" Captain Kirk tells them.

The Thasians know better. They know that without effective limits on Charlie's power, nobody can teach him. So they take him away, and the crew of the Enterprise mourn for Charlie, knowing that he will experience a kind of eternal hell -- having unlimited power and a physical body, but being unable to touch and be touched, unable to love or be loved.

For me this spoke to the LDS conviction that exaltation and eternal life are meaningless without bodies. It is not merely that human beings, if they are to prepare to become god-like, must learn to master their emotions, discipline their hungers and their wants. It is that they must learn how to live the kinds of lives that make embodied existence a joy and not a hell. We must experience love, touch, physical affection in this life because it is only now, in this life, that we must also face the kinds of limits and learn the kinds of lessons that will enable us to give and receive the only kind of love that will have meaning, in time but also in eternity.

Monday, May 4, 2009

A Tender Mercy of the Lord

Yesterday morning as I was getting ready to go to Church, the phone rang. I don't usually pick up the phone when the name of the caller doesn't show up on the caller ID. But this time I did.

It was Bro. B., the ward clerk. The bishop wanted to know if he could meet with me before Church. It was 8:11 a.m. The bishop was wondering if we could meet at 8:30 a.m. Fortunately I had already showered and shaved. All I really needed to do to finish getting ready was to put on a tie. So I told Brother B. to let the bishop know that would be fine. Then I finished dressing, got on my bike, and headed over to the ward meeting house. By 8:25, I was waiting outside the bishop's door.

The discussion was good-natured and loving as always. The bishop thanked me for some volunteer work I had done for the Church recently, and complimented me on the nature of my participation in the ward. He asked a few questions that were indicative of his general concern about my well-being. After we had chatted amiably in this way for a few minutes, he then proceeded to explain to me that I would not, as a general rule, be allowed to bear my testimony again over the pulpit as I had a few Sundays ago.

I told him the previous bishop had already informed me that as an excommunicated member I was not permitted to speak or pray in public meetings of the Church. I explained to him that the only reason I had asked his permission to do so was because the Spirit had prompted me. He told me that he too had felt the Spirit confirming that in that instance it had been permissible for me to bear my testimony in fast and testimony meeting. He wanted me to understand that as a general rule this would not be permitted. I told him that had been my expectation all along.

I promised the bishop that I had no intention to "break the rule." I agreed to help enforce the rule should somebody else who is not aware of my status ask me to speak or pray in a setting where I should not. I had conformed to the rules of good order of the Church. I had not done anything without the permission of the presiding officer at the meeting. There was no harm done, the bishop reassured me.

Far from feeling at all hurt or slighted, I was actually relieved when the bishop explained this to me. The prompting of the Spirit I had experienced was so strong and so remarkable. And the bishop had been so matter-of-fact when he said I would be allowed to bear my testimony, I later wondered if my previous bishop had really understood the rule. In fact he had. So that confirmed to me, rather dramatically, that my experience of Sunday, March 29, was indeed a gift of the Spirit.

My bishop smiled, and said, "You should consider it a tender mercy of the Lord."

I do. And for that, it is all the more precious to me. I felt a double-measure of the Spirit in Church yesterday, filling me with joy and gratitude.