No Matter What

Dear Will:

My son is mad at me. It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last, but he’s finally old enough (nearly 18) that he is confident in wielding his agency against me. And I’m not enjoying it.

I’ll spare you the gory details. But the essence of the disagreement that provoked his anger went something like this:

Luke: “I’m going to Australia with my girlfriend and her family. It will cost $2,000 or so. I will raise that money myself between now and July and it won’t cost you a dime. I just need your consent.”

Me: “No.”

Luke: “This should be my decision, not yours. When are you going to let me make decisions for myself?”

Me: “When you move out and pay your own way. Until then, you’re not spending $2000 you don’t have to vacation with your girlfriend.”

At this point you can assume that we continued to repeat these same thoughts over and over for several days and that he grew angrier and angrier the more intransigent I became. Finally he presented the following bit of desperate extortion: “If you don’t let me go, I will cease all activity with the Church. Immediately. Starting right now.”

And he has made good on that threat.

As you might imagine, I watch Luke’s rebellion with a mixture of sadness and bemusement. For instance, I wonder how this plays itself out. Does Luke put on a show for a few weeks and then come inching back into the fold, or does he dig in his heals, never to return? Will he retain a semblance of faith, expressed elsewhere and/or in different ways? Or will he drift into a state of agnosticism or indifference? And in all of this, what role, if any, should I take? And what’s my next move?

Now as one who for whatever reason has also chosen to disassociate yourself with the Church, perhaps you recognize a little of yourself in all of this. Or perhaps you merely see Luke as the rational one in the family. On the other hand, maybe you see him making a familiar mistake that’s hard to reverse. (In fact, I would be very interested in knowing your honest perspective on all of this. If you’re willing, drop me a note and let me know.)

Meanwhile, I take little comfort in the fact that throughout the scriptures there are stories of faithful men whose sons for one reason or another rebelled. However, I do take especial interest in the story of the Prodigal Son. In that parable, Jesus tells of a young man who asks his wealthy father for an early inheritance. Flush with cash, the youth “[wastes] his substance with riotous living.” Before long, he finds himself working for a pig farmer and coveting the pig’s food.

When he finally hits bottom, the young man decides to return to his father, beg his forgiveness, and ask to become one of his servants. The surprise (to him) comes during the journey home. Jesus says: “But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” Note that the son didn’t have to come all the way back. He merely had to head back in the right direction and his father came running to meet him.

So I guess that’s my task: Not to wait for Luke to come back to me, but rather to watch for signs that he is beginning to turn around. When he does, I must show him an outpouring of love. Whether he returns to church is almost immaterial. The important thing is letting him know that, no matter what, I will and do always love him. Now the question is: Can I pull it off?

PW

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How to Choose a President

Dear Will:

Perhaps you’ve noticed that the Mormons have been in the press a lot lately. For instance, recently there was a four-hour Frontline special on PBS tracing the Church’s history from the early 1800s to the present days. But much more has been said about the Church (and will be) due to the candidacy of Mitt Romney for President of the United States. As every semi-conscious being in and around the United States must know by now, Romney is a Mormon. And it has caused much hand-wringing.

I continue to be surprised by the frequency with which politicos include Mormon theology in the discussion of Romney’s suitability for the office he seeks. What I find especially remarkable is that they do not, at the same time, at least make a gesture toward discussing the religious beliefs of any of the other candidates. In fact, I couldn’t tell you which church ANY of the other candidates belongs to, nor could I so much as confirm whether he or she so much as believes in God. I’ve now voted in six or seven presidential elections, and not once were the religious affiliations of the various candidates included in the public debate—even though (it should be noted) my voting life has coincided rather directly with the growing influence of the so-called “religious right.”

Most surprising of all is that so often you will hear that such-and-such a spokesperson for some ostensibly Christian political group will state emphatically that he/she would never vote for Romney simply because he is a Mormon. The implication, of course, is that such people would rather vote for a candidate who may or my not be a Christian and whose beliefs may or may not align with Christianity. Better to do that (they seem to be saying) than vote for a fellow Christian who happens to be a Latter-day Saint.

To be clear, I don’t begrudge anyone the right to use religion in deciding for whom to vote. But what I find hard to understand is the arbitrary application of such criteria. If you eliminate one candidate because of the teachings of his church, shouldn’t you be equally diligent in determining the accepted teachings of each candidate’s religion? To do otherwise is to be guilty of a kind of bigotry which I find inconsistent with the ideals which Jesus taught.

Please do not misunderstand. Personally, I have no idea if Mitt Romney would make a good President. I can assure you that I would never vote for him because he is a Mormon any more than I would vote against someone else because he isn’t. I would be much more interested in examining the personal integrity and motivations of each candidate. Let me know what he truly believes in, what he cares about, how he acts when the pressure is on and the right thing may be neither popular nor politically expedient. Then I will know whether his beliefs align with mine, regardless of where or if he goes to church on Sunday (or any other day, for that matter).

It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who dreamed that one day his children would be judged not by their skin color but by the content of their character.  I sometimes find myself dreaming a similar dream on behalf of the Latter-day Saints (whom I know and love): Judge us on our character, not on some mistaken understanding of what we believe. Jesus said: “By their fruits ye shall know them” (see Matthew 7:15-20). That’s a standard up to which Mormons should rightly be held—and one worth discussing in reference to all candidates in any political debate.

PW

Getting It Right, Thirty Years Hence

Dear Will:

I’m sitting on Northwest Airlines flight 150 from Minneapolis to Orange County. I flew in yesterday for some meetings and I’m racing home wishing I weren’t wearing a starched shirt and wool slacks. I’ve always been more of a blue jeans kind of guy—especially when I travel.

This was one of those quick and dirty business trips which tend to give business travel the bad reputation it deserves. Too much time in airports. Too much time in a hotel room. Way too much time in meetings. And just about no time out and about to make you feel like you’ve actually been somewhere. Even so, this was one of the best trips I’ve taken in a long, long time.

Here’s why: This morning I hooked up with Mark H., who in high school was one of my very best friends. By our calculation, we haven’t seen each other in 24 years. Now that can be kind of a dicey proposition, seeing someone you once knew but no longer really know. The question is always whether there will be anything of substance on which to base a conversation. Will the two of you spend a few happy minutes reminiscing about high school hijinks and then lapse into awkwardness? (“It’s sooo good to see you.” (awkward pause) “ You look great!” (awkward pause) “It’s sooo good to see you.”)  Or will you be able to bridge the years and reconnect on some level much more meaningful—like real friends do.

Well, Mark and I really connected. It was two hours discussing the things that matter most, sharing the worries of fatherhood, the challenges of career deviations, even the evolution of our faith.  (That’s not a minor point, by the way. You see, Mark is a Lutheran pastor.) It gave me much to ponder, much to discuss with my wife when I get home, and great motivation to return to Minneapolis at the next hint of a meeting. It was more than I could have hoped for in a long-delayed reunion with a friend.

One of the things we recalled with a smile was an awkward evening in our youth when we had a testy disagreement about religion. Since Mark is the son of a preacher, it was inevitable even in high school that the two of us would talk about our beliefs. In all other circumstances we were appropriately respectful. But on this particular evening I grossly misrepresented my church’s teachings (because I did not yet understand them), and in response he said some outrageous things about the eternal consequences of my misguided faith. I have thought about that night many times since because I was such a poor spokesman of our church. When I mentioned it to him today, however, he apologized not only for the things he had said, but also for misrepresenting his own faith. We got a good laugh out of our limited understanding as teenagers—especially when we discovered today—some 30 years hence—that our beliefs concerning that particular point of doctrine are essentially the same.

What I believe, and he believes, can best be expressed by this phrase from the Book of Mormon: It is by grace we are saved, after all that we can do (see 2 Nephi 25:23). The idea is that we express faith through action, even while knowing that no amount of action will ever allow us to “earn” the love Christ freely gave us through his Atonement. It is the contradiction of Christianity: That we must give our very best even while knowing that our best is woefully insufficient—and that somehow his love will overcome that insufficiency. What a thrill it was to talk about such important things with a friend whom I had not seen in such a long time.

It was good to see him, and he did look great, by the way. But that subject never came up.

PW