Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Processing the Election, Hillbillies and Two and a Half Men

Well, we guessed wrong.

The only questions were whether it would a close election or a landslide, and whether Trump would concede, and what to do with the angry people when he didn't concede, and how Clinton would start a presidency with such ill will. We didn't anticipate this.

We didn't, in fact, a Trump candidacy. I feel as though the whole nation is now as blindsided as the GOP was when Trump starting picking off establishment Republicans from Jeb Bush to Ted Cruz (man, did I just write Cruz was establishment? weird...). How could we not have seen this coming?

The "it" book of the political season Hillbilly Elegy is part biography, part political commentary and does a good deal to describe the hidden America of migrants from Appalachia who settled into the steel towns of Ohio and Pennsylvania, then got lost as a changing economy made it impossible to get a good-paying job without a college degree. The book is lauded from across the political spectrum as it comes to a variety of conclusions about who these people (read: voters) are: Democrats let working class voters down; "personal spirituality" fails to provide the safety net organized religion does; the information economy leaves undereducated people in the dust; drug treatment facilities are under funded and arrest drug users does nothing to help them or their families; etc. For many people, this is the first time someone from the so-called hillbilly culture has let them into their world.

I'm not the first (hundreth) person to point out that we live in a cultural echo chamber, but this election has reminded me of what I called the Two and A Half Men blinder. Two and a Half Men for those of you who don't know (my likely readers), was a profane and insane sitcom that I could only stomach for fifteen minutes, once, at the gym. It was also the most popular show in America. I didn't get it. I literally did not know a single person who watched the show. And I asked around.

Alternatively, all my friends, and I mean all of them, watched 30 Rock. Even the people who bragged about not watching TV had seen a few episodes. And while 30 Rock did okay for itself, it was notorious the "also-ran" of ratings. Talking with my friends, I would have thought 30 Rock would be the most popular show on TV--it was funny, smart, politically aware, but not too preachy.

Two and A Half Men should have predicted this election. We should have been more aware that "our" America isn't just ours.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Simple and Powerful Discipleship /or/ You Don't Have to Become a Martyr to Be a Saint

The following is the talk I wrote for church last week. I stayed up until 1 am because I got so excited to write it. It's called Simple and Powerful Discipleship, but I like to call it, "You don't have to become a martyr to be a saint."

I’m Mary Hedengren Perez and my husband Krystian and I moved into the ward just a couple of months ago. He spoke last month. I serve as Primary secretary and Krystian works with the Priests and Cub Scouts. We were extremely grateful to receive these callings because, due to a series of unusual circumstances, we had gone the nearly 4 months since we were married without callings in the church. This disappointed us because we were looking forward to serving in a family ward. We certainly had “real callings” in our singles ward, but we were eager to widen the range of our service. We speculated endlessly, wondering whether we would serve the youth, the children or even the babies. We spoke with friends of ours who had callings like  Stake Youth Dance DJ, callings which we had never even contemplated.

The church affords us many opportunities to build the kingdom of God through callings, serving our families and developing personal spirituality. This work is increasingly urgent.

Bonnie Oscarson, the Young Women’s President, reminded us in this most recent general conference that we are blessed to have the fulness of the gospel, but we are also beset with “perilous times.” Under such circumstances, half-hearted work in the kingdom will not suffice. What, then, should we do?

First though, President Oscarson points out, we need to strengthen our own testimonies in the basics of the gospel. We need to develop unshakable testimonies in the divinity of Christ and His role in the plan of salvation. We need to be able to bear strong witness of Joseph Smith’s prophetic role in bringing forth the restoration of the gospel. We need to seek and find the significance of our temple covenants and blessings. Though powerful testimonies of Christ, the restoration and the temple ordinances, we can serve and teach with a powerful spirit.

It’s not enough just to have testimonies, though: we must commit to the acts that will demonstrate our conversion. Just as we need to develop powerful testimonies, we need to commit to powerful acts of discipleship. That was one of my favorite things about Bonnie Oscarson’s talk: she emphasized that these are not the days for rinky-dinky discipleship.

Before I dig into the ways that Sis. Oscarson called us to actively follow Christ, let me take a sidebar to say what these powerful acts of discipleship are not. Powerful acts of discipleship do not make you needlessly a martyr. They do not need, even, to take far more time or effort than what you currently expend. They are always about what matters most.

Pres. Utchdorf has wisely counseled, quote “An acceptable sacrifice is when we give up something good for something of far greater worth.
Dedicating some of our time to studying the scriptures or preparing to teach a lesson is a good sacrifice. Spending many hours stitching the title of the lesson into homemade pot holders for each member of your class perhaps may not be.
Every person and situation is different, and a good sacrifice in one instance might be a foolish sacrifice in another.

How can we tell the difference for our own situation? We can ask ourselves, “Am I committing my time and energies to the things that matter most?” There are so many good things to do, but we can’t do all of them. Our Heavenly Father is most pleased when we sacrifice something good for something far greater with an eternal perspective” end quote (“Forget me not”).

If you find that you frequently get caught up into this trap, sacrificing unnecessarily until our callings or other service opportunities become heavy burdens and sources of relentless guilt, may I recommend Eld Ballard’s 2006 General Conference talk “O Be Wise”? In this talk, Eld. Ballard gives clear guidelines in creating balance in our callings. He prays that we will “focus on the simple ways we can serve in the kingdom of God.” Simple does not mean weak. Simple does not even mean easy. But it does mean that we don’t run faster or labor harder than we have strength or unnecessarily complicate things.

I propose 4 ways we can strengthen our discipleship without, perhaps, significantly increasing our time or means.

The first principle is demonstrated by a mother Sis. Oscarson describes. This mother “chooses a topic each week, often one that has generated a lot of discussion online, and she initiates meaningful discussions during the week when her children can ask questions and she can make sure they’re getting a balanced and fair perspective on the often-difficult issues. She is making her home a safe place to raise questions and have meaningful gospel instruction.” Pres. Oscarson doesn’t say, but I suspect this mother has family home evening, family dinners and maybe even family scripture study. But she doesn’t just try to get through a chapter, or through an hour: she makes the content meaningful and takes advantage of the time she has to each her family.

Setting aside fifteen minutes a day for scripture study, two hours a month for home teaching, or a day a week for worship and rest will form worthy habits. But to magnify the impact of that time, it’s not enough to just go through the motions. The some of most meaningful scripture study I have done has been to research a real question or concern, seeking for answers and inspiration.  I felt this urgency most acutely on my mission, where I filled this notebook with questions I either heard or anticipated from the people we taught and I dug deep to discover the answers. We do not have time, brothers and sisters, to simply “get through” a lesson, a family home evening or a Sunday. We need to make the most of this time to discuss the crucial, even uncomfortable, truths of the gospel. So principle one, and perhaps the one on which the others stand, is to simply use the time we have more meaningfully.

The mother in that story thought about the needs of her children in gospel learning, as did Sis. Marffissa Maldonado, a youth Sunday School teacher in Mexico. Bonnie Oscarson relates that Sis. Maldonado set up a social media page for her students, and texts them their assignments, connecting with them in ways that are natural to them. She used social media and text to communicate with students rather than, say, paper handouts.  Instead of doing things that felt natural to her, she sought to do things that were more natural to those she taught. Now, posting on a Facebook page takes less time, not more, than creating a paper handout, so she wasn’t needlessly complicating her calling, but she was thinking about the ways her students communicate rather than what worked for her. So, principle two is to serve in the way others need, not in the way that is comfortable.

When Sis. Maldonado when  was called, there were only 7 students regularly attending her Sunday School class. Now there are more than 20. When President Oscarson related her amazement, she reports that Sis. Maldonado modestly said, “Oh, it wasn’t just me. All the class members helped.” And they did. The class members reached out to less active members and even initiated missionary work that resulted in the baptism of a new member.

I’m not sure exactly how Sis. Maldonado did it, but I suspect it included inspiring them about the significance of what was happening every week in class as well as providing them opportunities to reach out to their classmates. What a great blessing for those teenage saints to be enlisted in the work of bringing souls to Christ! Instead of seeing her Sunday School students as passive, she empowered them to do great things. If you think about it, this is what God, Christ, the prophet, the bishop and the auxiliary leaders all do when they extend callings to us, and we can extend invitations to serve to those around us. So the third principle is to enlist the help of those around us, even those we serve.

Finally, for the last principle, I want to especially address my primary kids, but it holds true for youth and non-youth, too. Do you come right away when called for family home evening or prayer? Do you volunteer to say the prayer over the food, or, when you are called to pray, do you do so without complaining? Do you share the lessons you learned in church each Sunday? You can be powerful examples in your family and beyond!  Sis. Oscarson says that “even the very youngest in this audience can rise up in faith and play a significant role in building the kingdom of God. ... All children and young [people] can encourage family home evenings and be full participants. You can be the first one on your knees as your family gathers for family prayer. Even if your homes are less than ideal, your personal examples of faithful gospel living can influence the lives of your family and friends.”

If your families, roommates, friends or coworkers are not all united in living gospel standards, the temptation can be to live the gospel shyly, being embarrassed of your discipleship the way you might hide belonging to a Justin Beiber fan club. Christ commands us to let our light shine before the world.  Don’t be ashamed of your goodness! The world and your family need your goodness. If you’re reading your scriptures, it’s okay if you read your scriptures in the living room as well as the bedroom. If you had a good Sunday, you can share it with coworkers just as proudly as if you had a good Saturday. If there’s a quote you love from General Conference, you can post it on Instagram, hang it in your office, or print it on a t-shirt just as deeply as you engrave it in the fleshy tablets of your heart. We’re not doing this to be holier-than-thou, but because this is who we are and we have no reason to be ashamed of who we are.The final principle is to live the gospel boldly.

To summarize, we can magnify the efforts we are already making in gospel living when we:

  1. Make meaningful use of time set aside for gospel learning
  2. Serve in the way that is needed, not in the way that is comfortable.
  3. Enlist the help of those around us, even those we serve.
  4. Live the gospel boldly.

These principles are not easy. You may feel set in your ways and find it difficult to try something new in the way that you study the gospel or serve others. You may hate the feeling of helplessness when recruiting others to do something you feel you can do better yourself. You may be shy or feel self conscious about sharing outside the things you feel inside. But I promise that as you do so, you will see the benefits in those around you as well as within you. We don’t need to do more, but we do need to do better, and with inspiration from the Spirit and a willingness to try, we can. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Read a Banned Book

Every year, the American Library Association promotes Banned Books Week, which tricks kids into reading literature under the guise of being rebellious.

I'm not saying this as a criticism. I, myself taught one of a dozen sections of Banned Books and Novel Ideas at my old university, helping students fulfill a fine arts credit and feel like a literary bad-asses. But, looking around at my colleagues' syllabi, I realized that everything has been banned and nothing was. There were books, certainly, like Harry Potter, that had been banned by some fundamental evangelical librarian in some small town in Ohio, and there had been works that have been "soft banned," like when South Carolina's House of Representatives tried to cut funding because Fun House, a graphic novel about coming of age as a young lesbian was required reading for incoming freshmen, but outright bans have been rare in this country. I ended up taking an international approach with my reading list, looking at banned books from the U.K., Germany, El Salvador, South Africa, Iran and Vietnam.

The bans are different in the United States.

I once had lunch with a friend of mine who I admire continually, and we got on the subject of books we pulled off the shelf when we were too young for them.
"I read Anthem," I said, laughing, "when I was ten just because it was skinny."

The mood suddenly turned sober.

"You've read Anthem?" she said with distaste. "What were your parents doing owning Anthem?"

"Well," I said, realizing I had somehow mistepped. "They were in college during the Cold War, and they never sold back any of their books--I'm not sure it's a thing people did back then."

But it bothered me. Look, I don't agree with Ayn Rand politically one bit, but preteens reading Anthem will find all of the hallmarks of classic YA distopia, complete with the insistence that I Am The Special One. It's juvenile philosophy, which is why most of us grow out of it, but reading it didn't make me a fascist any more than reading Fun Home created a generation of lesbians in South Carolina. What's disturbing is that, culturally, we are uncomfortable with listening to--or reading--someone we don't agree with.

Foucault's most famous, probably, for the idea of the social panopticon. The panopticon was a jail system that formulated a couple of hundred years ago, where the prisoners are always being watched and judged by someone standing in the middle of the jail, and by each other. Foucault pointed out that we are always policing each other. In fact, he expanded carcerality to include not just policemen, but schoolteachers, preachers and anyone in the society who is watching each other. This, not outright bans, is where I feel books in America become banned.

Physicial books, in the digital age, have become markers of who we are, as much a signifier of position and rank as the pictures on our walls and the neighborhoods we live in. I've never put E.D. Hirshe's book about cultural literacy on my bookshelf at work because I didn't want my colleagues to think I was racist.  Hirshe's racism is itself debatable, but I didn't want to be guilty by association. Having a physical book on your shelf has become a badge of What You Believe, rather than a sign of What You've Read.

Most of my examples here have been about more conservative books, the reverse is true, too: I can read books by people I disagree with, even read them attentively, and it will not necessarily radicalize me. In fact, how can I know I disagree with them until I read their book and figure out what, exactly, it is that I disagree with.

So what I'm saying is, this Banned Book season (which also overlaps with Election season), maybe read something that your group, whoever they are, would deplore. And it's even okay if you deplore it, too. You don't have to like it, you don't even have to finish it, but you do need to understand it.

It could be memoir of someone you don't agree with (I read a biography of Golda Meir in high school that I still think about sometimes when I think about Zionism), or fiction that promotes a philosophy you don't ascribe to (I adore Turgenov and Poe, but I'm not nearly so gloomy), but go out there and find something someone tells you not to read and read it.