Saturday, January 24, 2015

Explanation, Justification, Sanctification

My daughter, Kira, is 10 years old. That is old enough to engage with fairly sophisticated ideas and young enough to to still care what your parents think about them. I don't know how long this window lasts. 

I hope, of course, that Kira will continue to be interested in the insights Nicole and I have to share for many years to come. But no matter how open she remains, there's a rapid expansion from age 10 to 20 in the size of her world. Kira will, sooner than later, be dealing with a much wider range of problems and integrating a much wider range of voices into her responses. That is good and exciting, but also somewhere between humbling and terrifying. I accept and respect her fundamental independence now and in the years to come, but also feel a God-given obligation to give her the best foundation I can to build on. And the years are getting so short lately. So terribly short. 

Most of what I will give my daughter is not conscious. Things like my belief in the strengthening and healing potential of humor aren't talks or lessons, they just leak out of me in my day to day responses to the world. As do lessons I don't want to give at all, like "when you are feeling frustrated anyway, it might help to lash out at people you love." 

There are a few, valuable times, though--like when I tuck Kira in for bed or when we're having Family Home Evening or sometimes when we're driving together in a car--when I can try to consciously teach something. And for the most part, I've chosen to focus those times not a specific subject, but on giving her an underlying vocabulary for how to think things through. 

My latest emphasis came to me a few days ago after the kids had a fight. For all the inventiveness of children, there's still a grinding repetition that comes with being a parent, and as their narratives of events (with all the usual complaints, accusations, and excuses) washed over me, I found myself thinking about the genre of children's post-fight storytelling. Why do we tell the stories we do about conflicts? 

And as Kira told me why she hit her brother, I realized it would be well worth my time to focus on the difference between an explanation and a justification

An explanation, I told Kira, is about why you did something. What motivated you? Your explanation for why you hit your brother usually has to do with something he did. Elijah did x or y, which made you upset and then motivated you to hit. 

But an explanation is not necessarily a justification. A justification has to do with whether something is wrong or right. Understanding how your brother's actions made you want to hit him is not the same as making it right for you to hit him. 

Don't treat an explanation as if it were a justification, I told her. There will be a quiz, I said. 

That night, I asked her to tell me the difference between explanation and justification, as we'd defined the terms. It wasn't easy for her to do--and led, actually, to a discussion of circular definitions. But after a little while, she did pretty well at coming up with examples of each and correctly identifying examples I would come up with. She started to really see the difference. She's even been able to talk about tough cases of justification: when is it right to do a lesser wrong to prevent a greater one? The terms have opened up a way for us to start talking together about different problems. 

So last night, I added a third term, sanctification, and gave an example from the chapters she is about to read in Alma in the Book of Mormon. 

There's a king named Lamoni coming up, I told her, who sometimes kills his servants. This usually happens when the servants get sent out to guard his stuff and come back empty-handed. He gets mad, and so he kills them. 

Kira correctly identified this as an explanation. It's a story about why the king does what he does, but not about whether it's right. 

Then I pointed out that the king can attempt a justification: he can explain that his stuff is very important, and that doing your job is very important, and that when his servants run away instead of doing their job to protect his stuff, he has a right to have them killed. 

Kira agreed that this was an attempt at justification, but rejected it on the grounds that life is more important than property (as we'd previously discussed when considering the justification offered by a certain Jean Valjean). 

I complimented Kira on her analysis and then told her more of the story. King Lamoni, I said, later learned about the gospel and realized his own justification hadn't been enough. He felt terrible about what he'd done. What do you think he did then? I asked Kira. 

He repented? she said. 

Yes, I said. He repented. And he decided not to do those things anymore. But there were other people who didn't like the changes he was making. Who thought he was showing weaknesses. So they attacked his kingdom. 

At that point, I asked, would King Lamoni and his people be justified in killing the people who attacked them? 

Not necessarily, Kira said. Are the people who attack trying to kill them or just take their stuff? And is there a way to fight them off without killing them? Killing is very serious. 

That's true, I said. But assuming that the attackers are trying to kill them, Lamoni and his people would be justified in fighting back, even if they had to kill, I said.Think of soldiers in war. Think of the cartoon Justice League. 

Yes, Kira agreed, in certain cases of self-defense, killing would be justified. 

I believe that's true, I said. And I think Lamoni and his people believed it was true. But they didn't fight back because they wanted something more than justification. They were worried about sanctification. Explanation is about why you did something, justification is about whether it's right, and sanctification is about whether it makes you holy. 

Lamoni's people knew what it was like to kill out of anger. They knew how tempting it could be, how powerful it could make them feel. And they didn't want that any more. They wanted to be holy. They were willing to turn down something they had a justification to continue their sanctification. They were willing to die for it. 

 There will be a quiz, I said. 

I'm looking forward to talking quite a bit more with Kira about explanation, justification, and sanctification. Maybe we should talk about how sometimes your actions have no justification, but it's important to figure out the true explanation of why you did them so you can figure out how to change. Maybe we should spend more time on the complexities of justification and all the dilemmas it creates. And maybe 10 is not too young to get more detailed about how Jesus fits into all three kinds of stories and to start working together on figuring out what the scriptures have to say. 

And for now, maybe all this will be good for is slowing down the next post-fight discussion and separating why she acted the way she did from the question of whether it was right. Though I suspect I'll also be seizing opportunities to go through what explains some of my bad behavior and why those explanations also fail to justify it--and maybe in the process undo some of the inevitable bad teachings my example leaves behind. 

And I hope the concepts, abstract as they are, will start to have power for her. So that in a few too-short years when friends and loves and factions loom larger in her world, she'll have tools for understanding herself and others, tools to sift out the different parts of difficult relationships. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Advice for My Daughter

Sometimes things are not your fault, but they are your responsibility.

I know this seemed like a hard truth to you tonight, in the moment when you looked around your room at the chaos two much-younger brothers created. It will also seem like a hard truth to you years from now, as you come of age and inherit problems past generations created and couldn't solve.

Believe me: I understand how overwhelming messes can feel. I know what it's like not to know where to begin, and I know how strong the temptation can be to release the pressure you feel into blame.

But I also know how sweet it is to resist that temptation.

Let me tell you something real: the moment when you willingly accept responsibility for a problem you did not create, you transcend your own self-interest and become like God. Even if it's only a matter of gathering toys you did not scatter, you will feel the anchoring divinity in the center of your soul grow firmer.

Do not hide from this.

Every time life offers you an opportunity to draw borders around the edges of your heart, and you choose instead to walk straight past them and lay claim to a new burden of love, eternity nods in recognition.

It belongs to those who make room to receive it.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Three Meditations on a Child's Prayer


I have a 10-year-old daughter, a 4-year-old son, and a 2-year-old son.

It's an interesting time to listen to their prayers.

Leif, my youngest, still doesn't talk much--probably because he spent so much of his first 18 months of his life sick and in hospitals. Even before he started repeating words, though, the nightly rhythm of prayer helped him relax and accept sleep (we found that out the hard way when we tried to tuck him in without scriptures and prayers one night when his siblings were gone). Now, prayers are his most verbal  time of day. Often we can get him to repeat a word or two when he's asking for food, but more often than not at night, he'll take his best shot at repeating the words and short phrases of the prayer Nicole or I or one of the other kids helps him with.

Elijah often wanders and sometimes picks fights during prayers. Some nights, he kind of shouts his prayers or says them in his monster voice. Other nights, he's very thoughtful and helpful. He has one stock phrase that comes up almost every night--he likes to thank Heavenly Father "that we could have good fun." After a while, Nicole figured out that "good fun" meant the fun that comes with good choices: it was his way of asking for help behaving in a way that allowed him to have more fun than conflict with others.

Kira's prayers have recently turned from a narrower focus on our family's home life to our local community. She listens at church and then remembers to pray for specific struggling neighbors and their families. She's more and more likely to think of extended family members and friends. It's gratifying as a parent to watch her awareness mature.

My children's prayers give a pretty decent overview of some key roles religion plays in many lives today. It provides comfort and order. It helps focus us on our personal moral development and master ourselves. And it helps us reach out in compassion toward others, farther than we would likely manage on our own.


Last night, Kira prayed again for the Henley family, whose basement apartment we lived in for four years. Last Sunday, Alice Henley--who'd been like an extra grandmother to the kids--passed away. We've had a few talks about it since, and it was nice to know Kira was thinking of Alice's husband, children, and grandchildren.

Next it was Lijah's turn to pray. I can't remember exactly how his prayer started, but I definitely remember the part where he said, "Thank thee that Daddy will die. Thank thee that Leif won't die."

As soon as his prayer was over, Kira asked him what on earth he was thinking. Why would he even mention Daddy dying? And Lijah repeated some variation on a theme we've discussed several times, especially since Sister Henley's death--death is part of life. It's OK.

And so I find it strangely noble of my young son to thank God for my future death. If he takes the time to bless the name of God again on the day I die, I will be content and proud.

I understand, though, if that turns out to be hard. He's seen Leif stop breathing, seen ambulances rush him to the hospital. And so I'm not surprised that at the same time he prepares himself for my eventual death, he pleads in the guise of thanks for his brother to have a long, perhaps in his mind an endless, earthly life.

And oh my son, when you and I have loved and fought for years, when you've watched me grow frail and spend my own time in hospitals, you may want me to live forever on earth, too. It may be hard to remember on the day I go that death is part of life.


My great-grandmother, Basant Kaur, died when I was in elementary school. Afterward, I used to wonder sometimes if she was spending her time, invisible, somewhere close to me. That thought used to help me when I was tempted to do something I knew I wouldn't be caught for. No living person might know, but I hated the idea of disappointing Beiji.

I'd been home from my mission for about a year when my Grandpa Art died. My dad was able to fly right out when Art went in to the hospital, was able to hold his hand a last time. I was in Utah at the time, and drove out toward California to help move Art to a care center, or else to help clean out his apartment. He died while I was on the road.

It's been a while since that happened, but I still think about Art all the time. Every little while something will come up that reminds me how much I wish my wife and kids could have met him.

I feel like he's somewhere not so far away, but since I knew him so much longer than I did my great-grandma, it's also easier to see him in myself. I like to think that when my kids do finally meet their great-grandfather, they'll recognize him, in part, through the way I was--they'll know that even though he died too early for them, he was still in the way I talked and laughed and looked at the world. They'll recognize the ways they knew him.

I do believe, on an emotional and spiritual level as well as on an intellectual one, that what I tell my children about death is true. It's part of life, though the fear of bereavement and death are certainly part of life, too. We will always wrestle, I think, to find the proper balance between accepting death and working to delay it.

But I hope we remember it doesn't need to be something that severs our closest relationships, in time or eternity.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Meeting of the Myths" Contest Discussion

For our past literary contests, Nicole and I have tried different approaches to holding online discussions of the pieces. Sometimes we've gone on blog tours, holding discussions for different pieces in different places. Other times, we've had discussions posts for each piece here. Sometimes there's been more discussion on social media; other times we've actively encouraged people to take the extra steps you need to comment outside the gated portions of the internet so that the discussions can be more widely accessible and easier to find in the future.

For the current "Meeting of the Myths" contest, we'd like to try something a little different. In addition to the many conversations we've seen on Facebook and Twitter about individual stories, we'd like to have a single conversation thread to discuss all the stories on this blog. That way, it will be easier to talk about how the stories speak to each other and what we get out of the contest as a whole in addition to discussing our reactions to pieces on their own.

The seven finalists are:

"Spring Hill" by Luisa Perkins
"A Voice Not Crying in the Wilderness" by Jonathon Penny
"The Trail" by Stephen Carter
"Where Nothing Lives But Crosses" by Lee Allred
"Harmony's Victory" by Hillary Stirling
"Eyelight" by Mark Penny
"Daughter of a Boto" by Katherine Cowley (coming Sunday)

Feel free to comment on any aspect of a story, on the relationship between stories, on how the contest fits into larger conversations about Mormon Lit, on what they can teach us as Mormon writers, or whatever else you'd like to talk about.

Possible discussion question include:
What did that story mean? What are the implications?
Which story do you find most interesting/puzzling/troubling/engaging/timely/timeless/shareable/etc and why?
Do you see any sets of stories that come from the same aesthetic or social impulses? Do you see any pair or set of stories that provide us with a useful contrast in approaches?
What do you see in the contest that you weren't expecting?
What haven't you seen in the contest that you wish you had seen?
How are you going to decide which three pieces to vote for?
If you could share one story with the youth in your ward, which one would you pick?
Why are you spending your precious internet time on this contest instead of on, saying, teaching yourself another language or watching cute cat videos?
What stuff you're encountered elsewhere on the internet relates to stuff you've read or that the stories have made you think about?


Saturday, July 26, 2014

In Which A Ten-Year-Old's Views on Eden Blow My Mind

Kira asked me to tuck her in last night--as the parent of choice on nights when her room is a mess, I get to do that a lot--and we got talking. Somehow dinosaurs came up, and I pointed out there was more time between when the Stegosaurus and the Tyrannosaurus Rex (about 90 million years) than there was between the Tyrannosaurus and us (about 70 million years).

"I thought all the dinosaurs lived at the same time," Kira said.

"That's the way we usually think about it," I said, "but there were actually different dinosaurs who lived at different times. Some died out a long time before the last dinosaurs became extinct."

I watched her face light up with discovery. "Oh, right. Because all the stegosauruses got eaten," she said.

"Maybe," I said. "Or their environment changed. Or there were new diseases. Or something. And then a long long long time later, Tyrannosaurs evolved."

"Wait," said Kira, and I could see she was thinking hard about something. "If dinosaurs were dying for millions of years before humans, what about Adam and Eve? How does that work?"

And I have to tell you, I was so excited to see her really discovering a question people have been playing with for the past century and a half: a question she's heard before, but never quite noticed like last night. These are the kind of moments the ritual of regular parent-child conversations earn in my view: by talking to her about all kind of things, I get the chance sometimes to see and be a part of how she shapes her view of reality.

"I don't know exactly how those two stories fit together," I said. "What do you think?"

Kira started off with something she'd almost certainly heard before. But it still seemed to carry a new weight of possibility with her. "A day of creation doesn't have to be just one day," she said. "Those 'days' might have lasted for millions of years."

"That's a good idea," I said. But I didn't want her to get the idea that one decent idea is where your searching should stop. "Or what about this: what if Eden was sort of like in a different dimension. And Adam and Eve left that version of reality and came into this one. Sort of like there are portals between realms in Once Upon a Time."

Kira got excited. "Or like in The Wizard of Oz. Or maybe Eden was just part of earth, but after they left, it got taken somewhere. Like maybe Heavenly Father took it up to heaven."

"Here's an idea," I said. "We think of things changing in the future. But what if for Heavenly Father, they can also change in the past? Maybe when Adam and Eve left Eden, it didn't only change the way the world would look later, it also changed the way the world looked before."

"Or what if," said Kira, looking out into the air, almost like she could make herself see it, "What if Eden was before the rest of the world, and when Adam and Eve walked out of the garden--what seemed like a few seconds to them was millions of years for the world all around them. And it evolved in the time between when they left there and when they got here."

And I felt like I could almost see it, too. A sudden rush of the world unfolding itself, eons of violent creation released as the dam on time and death is broken. With each footstep, the landscape is changed. Whole species of flora and fauna appear and vanish in each blink of the eye while somewhere beyond continents groan and shift.

A child showed me this. My daughter: whose years sometimes seem to pass as if in moments before my own eyes.

I realize, of course, that numerous authorities in religion and science alike would not find my daughter's versions of Eden and Earth terribly compelling. Some rationalists would be bemused by my desire to keep alive a story which they no longer view as useful as an explanatory model for anything. Some religious figures would be disappointed by my disinterest in offering my daughter a single fixed point of doctrinal truth on a contentious theological question.

But those people don't get to tuck her in at night. And so I'm going to stick them on a shelf in the back of my brain and take time to savor some mysteries with a girl who has a bit of God in her.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Discussion of Jonathon Penny's Prologue to the Temple Poem

We discuss the final finalist in this year's Mormon Lit Blitz. Join the discussion, catch up on any of the twelve you may have missed, and go back to the Mormon Artist blog on Monday to vote for this year's Grand Prize Winner

When I was growing up, there were certain stories my father would tell us only in the winter. In the summer or fall we could beg and beg, but he would always tell us we had to wait for the first snow to fall on the ground. 

I loved those stories. And I learned to love my father, in part, by waiting for them and then by trying to guard his voice and the images it evoked in my mind for the rest of the year. 

In a number of different religions, there are stories and poems and names that are only spoken in certain times or places. Words you wait for, long for, guard in your heart and your mind through all the other seasons of your life. 

In our faith, we build temples around those words. And we love those temples with an almost passionate intensity. 

At the same time, though, we live in a culture where most people believe in discussing everything openly. When you can turn on the TV in the middle of the night and hear two people talking at once while written words scroll endlessly under their faces. So it's hard for many people to understand why we don't talk directly about the things we love, why we approach our temples only carefully, sideways, allusively. 

Jonathon takes careful, sideways, allusive words and builds a poem around the temple with them. 

And I feel like Jacob at Beth-el when I enter them. 

I don't know what to ask you about this poem. 

What lines stand out to you, perhaps? 

What does it mean to be a poet in a religious world where some words and ideas carry so much weight? 

What might a Mormon poet contribute to the range of human expression in the internet age? 

Friday, June 27, 2014

"Living Scriptures" Discussion

The Mormon Lit Blitz reaches its penultimate peril...

Today's Piece: "Living Scriptures" by Scott Hales

The Three Nephites don't get a whole lot of attention in scripture. Just a handful of verses, really, in two different places. And yet they've made their way into Mormon memory and folklore in a different way than any other story. The Three Nephites keep us wondering what sort of world we really live in, what presences might be hidden just beyond our reach.

We had three or four submissions for this year's Lit Blitz alone involving the Three Nephites. And somehow, this story moved us most of all.

What is it about the Three Nephites that keeps us coming back to them?

What works about the way this story uses the genre?

Are you concerned about the violence on television today?


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