Authenticity; Keeping it Real

Jackson VanDerwerken plays Nephi in the new Book of Mormon series. He was just 16 when they started shooting. He is currently serving a mission in Brazil.

The church has put out a whole series of new movies about the Book of Mormon.  I don’t know what I expected; wooden acting, flat characters, scriptures being read in radio voice……the typical church videos.  Maybe that’s why it took me so long to start watching them. They are really good! I know when the movie is good when I read the book and the characters in my head look like the characters in the movie.  That only happens when the actor is able to capture the character. After thirty years of reading the Book of Mormon, when I think of Nephi now, I can see the actor in this series. That’s pretty impressive!  The acting, the script, the set, the filming is all first rate. If you want to know more about the Book of Mormon, but don’t feel like reading it, this would be a good place to start.

And not only am I a fan, my thirteen year old son snuck out of bed last night to watch the next episode.  Impressive. The fact that he spends hours each day watching low budget YouTube gamer videos might indicate that something as useful as scripture videos would be boring. On the contrary, I think these Book of Mormon videos have some serious appeal to teenagers. I’m no expert on teens, but one thing I have learned really fast; they can smell hypocrisy. They expect inauthentic behavior and they invent them in parents even if they aren’t there. They are creating their mask of perfection and they know you have yours. On the flip side, they seem to love authenticity. Ugly and honest reality resonates with them.

Nephi is his willing to tell the story of his family.  It isn’t the whole truth about it of course. It is his perspective and should be recognized for what it is and what it isn’t. Every family is defined differently by each member who has their own memories and perspective. We’ve all had those weird moments when a sibling recalls the details of a family vacation we can’t even remember taking. For some reason, that vacation was meaningful to that person and it was seared into their long-term memory. It wasn’t meaningful to you, so you forgot it. It isn’t that your memory or theirs is wrong. Together, your memories can create a more complete picture of the reality that is and was your family.

Family is so intimate. Our siblings and our parents shape us. Telling the ugly truths about them can feel very personal.  Life is messy. There is snot, slobber, and poop. There are addictions, mental and emotional disorders, chronic illness, allergies, muffin tops, cellulite, and a hundred other distasteful things that exist behind closed doors.  Nephi lays it all out as he tells his story. He doesn’t spare anyone, even himself and his own father and mother. When they doubt, murmur against God, and cause problems for themselves and their family, he writes it. Maybe no one really wants to have a family like Nephi’s.  We would all like to have things be a little more pretty and simple; suits and dresses sitting in a row on the bench at church. No problems here!

Nephi shares his and his family’s personal and physical struggles as they strive to obey God’s commands and make a new life for themselves in a new land.

The truth is, life is hard and messy when it comes to families and the scriptures don’t paint a rosy picture.  Jacob and Esau were in a constant state of sibling rivalry even in the womb. Joseph was beaten, imprisioned, and sold into slavery by his brothers.  In his misery, Job’s wife told him to “curse God and die.” These accounts aren’t flattering for these families. No one wants to be Job’s wife in this story. No one wants to be the brother who sells his sibling into slavery. Still, a mature reader can have immense empathy for a wife who has lost everything and feels despair or a brother consumed by hatred and jealousy for a favored sibling. The unflattering details in these accounts are important because we can learn from them. Life is hard and sin, death, and disease are real, yet not many people in the history of the world have been willing to talk about the ugly in their families.  Often no record at all is made of a person’s life and family. I have talked to people who plan to burn journals before their death; determined to keep their inner lives a secret. This seems such a waste to me. So much can be learned about oneself and the world when we look at life through the eyes of another person. Also, no sin or problem is so great that the Savior’s atonement cannot save. Where is our faith?

Nephi was one of those rare people who recorded his inner thoughts and feelings about his family and gave them to the world. Something about the story of Nephi, Sam, Laman, and Lemuel seems to reveal so much about family relationships to me as a mother of four sons. I’m glad that Nephi made the choice to share the truth about his family even if it wasn’t always pretty.  It makes him relatable. Honestly, I relate to Laman and Lemuel too. I relate to Sariah and Lehi. They are real people to me because their lives weren’t perfect. If Nephi had only written the flattering things, I think I would have seen through the deception. Brothers tying one another up and beating each other with sticks…..sounds like my world!

So millions of people have read and will read the Book of Mormon.  Now they have made a decent video series that will be watched by many people.  Judgements will be made about Lehi and Sariah, their parenting, their children and their posterity.  Laman and Lemuel surely would have felt that Nephi’s account was not fair to them. Of course, they were free to make their own scratchings on metal plates if they wanted their story told.  Something tells me they never bothered to do that. Will their anger against Nephi be fueled unnecessarily by this willingness to make an account with so much detail and honesty? Does their resentment still smolter against their brother in the afterlife as millions read his story and their unflattering portrayal? Was it okay that Nephi wrote about his family? What about you and I? Should we write the truth about our families from our perspective? If so, when and how should it be shared? These questions are not simple or easy to answer.

I’ve been doing some digital portrait art.  It’s so hard to artistically represent a person!  One portrait I looked at for hours. Something was not quite right.  I had to erase much of the face and redo it because the jaw line was wrong, the ear was not quite long enough, and the eyebrow was too far from the eyelid line.  I was trying to be accurate and fair with my first rendering, but it still wasn’t right. Writing about people can be just as difficult as drawing them. How can you reproduce a person accurately and fairly without caricature?  How can you convey the essence of a person whether in print or in art? When you are finished, there is no guarantee that the person will like it or want it to be shared. What then? You drew the bags under their eyes, or the lines on their forehead.  You drew what was there and if you took those things out, it wouldn’t be them, but they don’t like it. They want a more flattering image, but what if that image comes at the cost of authenticity?

Authenticity makes things meaningful and we humans are very good at being able to tell whether something is authentic or not.  Check out this video of a robot pretending to be a person. Some very smart people have spent a lot of time and effort to make an authentic human being, but even a very young child would be able to tell that something isn’t quite right with Sophia.  Pick up a stack of Christmas family letters and read them out. Do you get a sense of who these people are? Are the authentic contours of their lives clearly seen? Probably not. The people described are probably more like stick figures than real people.

To clarify, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with the way we write Christmas cards or make robots.  I’m just trying to point out that authenticity is not something we do very often outside of art. Artistic expression is limited to very few people. There are advantages to this.  The drama of authenticity can be exhausting. Sometimes we don’t really want to know about Grandpa’s indigestion or Aunt Francis’s depression much less their deep dark secrets and sins.  There are also disadvantages to hiding our authentic selves. When the grandkids read the Harry Potter series and cry for days over the death of Dumbledore, but then don’t seem to care much at all when Grandpa dies, don’t be surprised.  Grandpa may not have seemed much like a real person to them compared to Dumbledore. We make emotional attachments to authentic human beings we can relate to. J.K. Rowling managed to make characters that connected on a deep level with many different people.  She did it by making them authentic. If we fail to share our authentic selves with those we love, we may find ourselves alone and disconnected.

I’m finding in my own life that authenticity is extremely important.  Meaningful connections keep depression and anxiety at bay not just for me, but for everyone.  No person can thrive in isolation. Yet today we live in a world in which individuals are increasingly isolated.  Transactional relationships are everywhere in our highly specialized and civilized world. We can pay people to cook for us, clean for us, take care of our children for us, and even help us process emotional trauma.  Behind those transactions, can we see the humanity? Can we make authentic connections? We can, but it can be difficult. For me it has taken some vulnerability. I have taken off some masks that I got comfortable wearing.  My blog has been a big part of making the journey toward authenticity. 

As my parents and I go through the family counselling experience, the blog has become the elephant in the room that is at last being addressed.  There are benefits to family counselling, but it is hard. I’ve had a resurgence of depressive symptoms as I have attended these sessions. I’m also reconsidering the purpose and content of my blog in light of my parents’ feelings. I’m trying to answer these tough questions.

In spite of my discomfort and my parent’s discomfort, I feel compelled to share my story with authenticity. It may seem that my efforts at expression are more trouble than they are worth to me and the people I care most about. Maybe they are. Maybe I’m wrong to share. Maybe there are things that are better left unsaid, as I’ve been told. Or maybe Nephi was right. Maybe if we share the ugly truths about our families we can put things in perspective. Our family’s ugly might not be so bad when compared with others! Also, we can learn from each other’s experiences to be better parents to the next generation. I am working on my privacy settings to try to create a blog that works for me and my family. I appreciate your patience as I go through posts and try to decide what audience I want to share with.

I pray that as I go through this process that I will be guided by Him who is Mighty to Save.  I know that as dark and difficult as this journey feels right now that it will have a happy ending.  There is hope and peace and blessings at the end of this road and maybe even along the way. Thank you for walking this path with me!

A Kingdom Not of This World

For the new year, I have been re-focusing on gospel study.  For what feels like the millionth time, I am beginning the Book of Mormon again.  I Nephi, having been born of goodly parents…. Each time I begin, it’s the same book, but yet it’s different because I have changed.  The world has changed.  

The impeachment Senate trial of Donald J. Trump has begun.  Hours and hours of arguments have been presented to show the contours of the Ukraine scandal and the reasons for the House to take the extraordinary step of impeaching the President.  I assume that hours and hours will be spent by the President’s defenders to cast suspicion on the House investigation. The country is divided with each side determined to remain so to the detriment of our country.

It reminds me of the sons of Lehi.  Laman and Lemuel on the one side, Nephi and Sam on the other.  Laman and Lemuel were suspicious of their father. He was a strange and visionary man.  He had coerced them into leaving the comforts of their home and community to wander in the wilderness, hunting game, and living in tents.  It brings to mind abusive families and cults who isolate their followers and subject them to privations. And Nephi and Sam support and believe.  They are the “good sons” who hang on Dad’s every word. Laman and Lemuel saw the good in the Jewish people that their father had condemned and they felt judged.  Why did Nephi and Sam see things so differently?

Nephi was himself a visionary man.  It might be said that he saw even more than his father did of the designs of God and His Son.  He clearly recognized the evil that had steeped itself in the culture of the Jews and knew that destruction was near.  He knew this in a way Laman and Lemuel did not because he inquired of the Lord. In making a sincere connection with the Spirit, he saw the truth; his family could not continue to follow God and remain in Jerusalem.  I assume Sam must have come to the same conclusions.

I’ve been reading the history of my mom’s great-great-great grandfather John Lowe Butler.  He lived in Tennessee in the 1830’s when he and his wife joined the Mormons. He moved to Far West and then to Nauvoo.  His wife’s sister, Charity Skeen, had also joined back in Tennessee, but was not able to migrate. She was a deaf-mute and her brothers were hostile to the church and felt she was being manipulated against her will.  He traveled back to Tennessee in 1842 on a mission. He visited Charity and learned that she was still strong in the faith and wanted to join her sister in Nauvoo. Her brothers threatened to kill John if he took her with him.  

He made an interesting observation of his former friends, and neighbors.  He said that the society was “all pretty well and bitterly opposed to the principles of the Kingdom of God.” He felt they were “full of the devil and persecution.”  He, like Nephi, could see that people were hard in their hearts, immune to the truth, and determined to walk their own way, away from God.

Like Lehi, John Lowe Butler had to leave his home and society in order to follow his conscience and become the man God intended for him to be.  In his day, as in our day, as in Lehi’s day, there are divisions that no calm recitation of “the facts” will bridge. The devil rages in the hearts of men.  He distorts the minds and hardens the hearts of those who allow him to. The narratives are many. The cynical insinuations multiply like rabbits. There are many warriors fighting supposed bad guys; each side certain of their own superiority.  Like the people of Babel, we hardly speak the same language anymore. Where is the truth? Who is the enemy? Is it Democrats or Republicans, Christians or Muslims, Muslims or Jews, rich or poor, white or black? What tribe do you belong to? How can you project the faults of your own tribe onto your enemy?  How can you defend your own people regardless of their crimes? That is the name of the game.

But the truth is there for those who are willing to inquire of the Lord.  In the Book of Mormon, Nephi sees our day. He sees a vision of the rise of “two churches,” one good and one evil.  The evil church oppresses the humble followers of Christ and puts them in bondage. Their creed is not of principle or ideology, but of power and lust.  Their God is not of heaven, but of mammon. This church is not exclusive. There are members in all parties, religions, ethnicities, nations, and economic means.  They see themselves as above the rules. They put the pursuit of power and wealth over everything else. They look down on those who behave honorably and act with integrity.  They subject them to persecution and bondage.

I was listening to NPR in the car on the way home from dropping Austin off at preschool.  The news talked about the Rohingya in Myanmar and the severe persecution of those people. I imagined in my mind a mob of angry men full of hate and violence.  Their victims were the Rohingya; and then they were my ancestors, the Mormon pioneers in Missouri; and then they were the Kurds in Northern Syria. And the mob changed too in my mind.  They changed from back to white, from poor to rich, from educated to ignorant, etc. Their weapons were likewise fluid. Sometimes guns, sometimes household items, sometimes laws, sometimes judges and lawyers, sometimes social media shaming.  

And I saw the truth of this moment.  Like Lehi did. Like Nephi did. Like John Lowe Butler did.  There is a rising of evil. There is a hardening of hearts and a blinding of minds.  The humble followers of Christ; not only Christians, but everyone who seeks to elevate mankind to greater civility, kindness, and devotion to true principles; will face persecution.  We will be driven out. Metaphorically and literally. Driven from councils and schools. Driven from houses of government and places of employment. We will increasingly find ourselves excluded from parties consumed with hate and tribalism, who seek power and revenge.  To follow Christ is to reject these things. Christ had a crown of thorns, not gems. He stood above the people nailed to a cross, not elevated on a throne of gold. He was willing to face rejection and death rather than deny the principles and truth he held sacred. If he had lived transactionally, compromised his principles, and made friends with the right people, he would likely have been embraced by the Jews. Perhaps he would have been made a king.  A fallen king for a fallen people. Instead He became the King of a different Kingdom. As he said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

I made this image based on Zelda Breath of the Wild, but I made her naked. To me, she is being reborn as a member of a new kingdom of light and hope.

And it has never been of this world.  His Kingdom is Zion; where the pure in heart dwell.  Zion is all around us, just as the great and abominable church is all around us.  We choose which church we belong to by what we set our hearts upon. Will you be driven out with me?  Will you take upon yourself the name of my King? Will you become my countrymen in a kingdom that is not of this world?  Let us purify our hearts together. Let us partake of a cleansing sacrament of renewal. Let us join hearts and hands in devotion to a higher law, a better way, a holier path guided by the light of truth that resides in the minds of the pure in heart.  The Lord will not forget His people. He will not leave us comfortless. As long as we have one another, we will never be alone.

New Year Perfection

I grabbed the empty wrapper in frustration.  “Where did it go! It was just here!” Wesley’s bony form was hovered over the Arby’s sandwich.  After over a week of the flu, he had become even more thin and for a moment I was encouraged that he had finally taken the sandwich I had offered him repeatedly.  Then Layne and Wesley locked eyes. I groaned audibly. This was another one of their food fights.

All Christmas break they had been fighting over food.  Once Layne made waffles and refused to give any to Wesley.  Layne insisted there was not enough for Wesley to have one. Wesley insisted that he was starving to death and needed to have a big stack.  Meanwhile I was trying to get Layne to share while frantically mixing up and cooking more waffles. Ten minutes later, everyone was gone from the table as I ate my small waffle.  I had traded with Wesley who was indignant that he had gotten the smallest one. I had added a second waffle to his plate, hoping that he was as famished as he claimed to be. He wasn’t.  His two waffles sat abandoned on his plate. I think he ate one bite. The food wasn’t the point. It was the fight. It is always about the fight.

So Wesley had turned his nose up at the sandwich I had offered him, and I had offered it to Layne.  When Layne came down to get the sandwich, Wesley had taken it for himself. But was not eating it. He didn’t actually want the sandwich.  It was about the fight. So of course my offer to cut the sandwich in half was met with hysteria by both boys, each insisting that they had claim to the entire thing.  I was supposed to choose. There was supposed to be a winner and a loser. That was the point of the entire exercise.  

I had been fighting panic all day.  It was the dreaded companion I didn’t want but could not be rid of.  Ben had been helping me limp through the day, taking breaks, planning, and writing.  The food fight was the last straw. I felt the panic take over as I shouted at them. “I can’t make you get along!  I can’t make you be kind to one another! I can’t make you be happy! I can’t do it.”

That led to the major meltdown.  Finances were tight, the car needed repairs, the washer was on the blink.  We had just replaced the T.V. and the vacuum. They had both gone out unexpectedly.  I hadn’t made anything for dinner and Ben and I were late getting off on our date. If we didn’t leave soon, we would get back late, then I would get to bed late, and then we would be late to 9:00 AM church.

A new year comes with serious challenges for me mentally.  I fall back into old perfectionistic patterns. “This year,” I say intensely, “This year I will do it!  I will finally take my life back. I will get the trains running ontime. I will make everyone happy, keep everyone happily progressing along the straight and narrow path, be organized and disciplined, and get it right.”  Then the days of January pass one by one and I find that I am still the disorganized mess I have always been. The clutter of last year still remains in piles around the house. The energy drains from me as I realize that nothing has changed.  And it never will change; not the way I want it to.

Stuff will break, money will be tight, the boys will fight, and we will be late.  Panic will come and I will shout and cry and pull my hair. We will pull out of the driveway for church at 9:00 and slip into sacrament meeting after the sacrament.  We will try and fail and try again and nothing will be perfect- except when it is. And those moments will be brief and glorious.  

Today sacrament meeting was one of those glorious moments.  Every testimony seemed to speak to my soul. Each member who spoke seemed to share a piece of themselves with me and my loneliness lifted.  I felt a real spiritual connection with each person and with God. I talked to friends. I gave and received hugs. I met my new Primary class!  Each little face seemed to be a new adventure; a new soul to find and bring to the Savior.  

One little boy came into sacrament meeting with his Mom and three little siblings.  I didn’t recognize her. She was by herself and was even more late than we were. Her curly hair and dark skin reminded me of my Tedford children.  They weren’t at church this week and I was sad for that. Seeing this woman and her little ones gave me hope and joy. I was so happy when I found out that little boy is in my primary class!

And so I begin another year.  Another year of battling crippling anxiety and debilitating depression.  Another year of alarming headlines and unhinged tweets. Another year of political campaigns and disinformation campaigns.  Another year of wars and rumors of wars as we march into an uncertain and ominous future.

And yet as I write this today, this moment, I feel peace.  Satan is real. The pain is real. The diseases are real. The chaos and fear are real. But so is He.  And he is Mighty to Save! I am enough because of his grace. I can face this year and this decade, and whatever is left after that with hope and optimism only because I know He will be there to walk the road with me.

Trump Derangement Syndrome

“You clearly have Trump Derangement Syndrome!” Its a common diagnosis thrown out by Trump supporters. I was diagnosed with it today by someone who obviously considers himself qualified to hand out fictitious mental disorders on social media.

It didn’t hurt my feelings because the sting wore off long ago, although I was surprised by source of the attack who was promptly unfriended. There has been a lot of political drama in my life the last couple of days. I have been feverishly unfriending those who refuse to take the time to understand the feelings I experience and expect me to always behave myself when they say ignorant things. I am only human and although I have my fair share of human frailties, I refuse to tolerate those who too often criticize me in my pain, and fail to provide respect, comfort, and understanding.

My mind continues to go back to the idea of “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” It is a classic example of gaslighting. First, elect a mercurial and abrasive man to the highest office of the land. Make sure he is incompetent and divisive and fires anyone around him who might tell him anything he doesn’t want to hear. Then, when people get upset and point out problems, say that they are deranged and hate him, thus blaming them for the problem you have created.

Trump Derangement Syndrome is not a real disorder. It is a way of marginalizing a group of people with the stigma of a mental health disorder. Such a practice is commonplace, but wrong. Mental health disorders do not make people without sense or reason in the vast majority of cases. They should not be used to discredit someone, especially when the disorder referred to doesn’t exist. Qualified mental health professionals use diagnoses to understand a patient and guide treatment options, not discredit and dismiss them.

There is obviously something very wrong in America right now. We are imploding rapidly. Our allies, the Kurds, are being slaughtered as we speak. Our President styles himself a king calling the impeachment inquiry “unconstitutional” although his behavior has made it inevitable that he would be impeached, as the only remedy we have for removing a lawless President. This whole thing causes me immense distress. I have pondered long on our current situation and I keep coming back to Carl Jung. His book The Undiscovered Self, Jung hypothesizes about the challenges of our time. I’ve found a lot of wise insights in that book.

In short, he believes that the biggest threat to mankind is the submission of the individual to the collective– a kind of enmeshing where everyone is to blame and no one is to blame for everything. Factions (Republicans and Democrats) can project blame onto other factions while refusing to do introspection and take responsibility for doing the work of societal change and improvement. Gradually the state replaces the individual and eliminates religion, or makes religion into creed, which is state sponsored religion. Rather than bringing the individual to God, creeds use religious manipulation to subjugate the people. The best defense against this enmeshing, according to Jung, is genuine connection to God; real spiritual and individual wellness of individuals.

Jung lived during the two world wars and had a chance to observe and analyse Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini and, even better, the people they ruled. He gave a fascinating interview with H.R. Knickerbocker that you can access here. Be warned, he makes some rather rude generalizations about Coastal Americans and others. Also, some have considered his comments on Hitler to be too flattering. Some NeoNazis use Jung’s words to justify and explain their continued fascination and even worship of him. Jung, for his part, did all he could to stop the spread of totalitarian governments during his lifetime and his words seem eerily canny and applicable today.

The strange behavior of Trump and his supporters has been the source of much distress to the nation and the world. There are reasons for it, but I am unqualified to fully diagnose the problem. Still, it is increasingly hard to make the argument that there isn’t something strange going on in the subconscious minds of those who have created the Trumpian nightmare we are living through.

George Conway wrote a piece for The Atlantic that I thought was excellent in describing the unenviable position we find ourselves with a President who openly displays the textbook description of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Worse, he seems better at disordering everyone else’s life than he does his own, although one could argue he does both. It is called Unfit for Office.

Mental health is being increasingly discussed and recognized as the vital subject it is. The General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints had several talks that touched on it. Mental wellness and spiritual wellness are two sides of the same coin. I pray that we can embrace the mental health resources we have to help us solve our nation’s problems, heal our divisions, and create a true Zion society where each of us is free to grow and develop into the individuals God created us to be.

Part Three: Silent No More

It was a beautiful day in September 2001. The sun beat down on the fragrant gardens of temple square, and I looked and felt radiant in my wedding dress. There had never been a finer looking man by my side. He was tall, handsome, strong, and righteous. We had made it to the temple having kept the law of chastity and we had a bright future ahead. It would be our happily ever after. As my face scanned the crowd, I saw him. My smile faded a little. Why did he have to be here? Why was this dark cloud of dread on the horizon of my day in the sun?

My father-in-law looked handsome. My sister even commented at how nice looking he was with his graying beard and sunglasses. Fit and trim in his tuxedo, he looked dashing even for a man in his late fifties. With elegant features and natural good looks, he blended nicely with the gathered crowd. His speech and manner seemed more refined than his brothers and sisters and other family who tended to be boisterous and rough around the edges. I knew he had been the only one of his many siblings to graduate from college. He had taught middle school for many years. Still, I much preferred his unpolished relatives to this man. I knew who he was.

Months before I had lain on a couch frozen with fear as I heard him verbally abusing his wife. He sounded like a monster. When I confronted my husband-to-be about the terrible things I had witnessed, he confided his family’s secrets to me. Some of them. His dad had a dark side. As he explained his dad to me, I felt a revulsion combined with heartrending sympathy. I wished I could unhear the jarring things that I had heard.

He said his father had been sexually victimized as a child. He had depression. He was unemployed and abusive to his wife. He had walked down the highway naked in an attempt to end his life. He had struggled with an addiction to masterbation on his mission that had caused self-esteem problems. It was later that I became aware of his more troubling history.

He had been caught peeping on his bishop’s daughter when his family lived in Vernal. Ben was just a baby then. They had left Vernal. Later he was found using mirrors to peep on women in the J.C. Penny dressing room in Logan. Peeping was something of an addiction with him, I was told. I marveled at the planning and premeditation that must have gone into such a plan. This was a dangerous man. But Ben insisted that all that was in the past and that his dad would never hurt me.

In the first year of our marriage, we went up to Cub River to visit Ben’s family almost every week. It began to interfere with my schooling because I didn’t have enough time to study. Ben’s mom and sisters were fun and kind and eager to build a good relationship with me. And then there was Ben’s dad, always on the periphery. He said very little, but his presence was large. I didn’t like him, and I made little secret about it. Mostly I ignored him.

When we got back from our honeymoon after the September 11th attacks, Ben’s dad gave us an impassioned speech in which he said that the United States deserved the attack because of the legalization of abortion. He insisted that Ben enlist in the army as soon as possible. He knew that this was the beginning of world war three and that enlisting was the only way to avoid the draft and being sent to the front lines, “where the stupid people are sent.” I felt a mixture of terror and dread and rage. My father-in-law was insane. Would my husband enlist? He had blamed my country for horrible terror attack and then implied that the only reason someone might fight on the front lines in war was because they were too stupid to game the system.  Who says stuff like that? When we got into the car to leave the house, I said to Ben, “You aren’t going to enlist are you?” Ben said, “My dad doesn’t make my decisions for me. We will look into it. That’s what I told him I would do.” Ben eventually joined the ROTC.

At a family function, we were all seated at a large table. Ben’s extended family were all around and we were discussing something. I had a great love and respect for Ben’s dad’s mother and I asked her a question. Ben’s dad interrupted and answered it. I interrupted him and said, “Yes, but I asked her.” There was a very awkward silence. Later, Ben’s sister confronted me about the way I had treated her dad. I can’t remember what I said, but something about that I didn’t like the way he treats her mom. That set her off. She was livid at the disrespect. I was not allowed to have negative opinions about her dad. After discussing the situation with Ben and enduring many awkward hours, I finally decided to apologize to Ben’s dad and make nice. He apologized as well, and everything was okay again. Except I started getting sick whenever I went up to Cub River to visit.

It wasn’t intentional, although I’m sure it seemed like it was. We would make the drive up the canyon, turn onto the winding dirt roads, and park in front of the beautiful cabin with the fantastic mountain view, and I would find a bedroom to lie down while everyone socialized. Sometimes it was a headache. Many times I was sick to my stomach. I would sometimes vomit.

I tried to pretend that everything was okay, that everyone didn’t treat Ben’s mom like crap, that his dad wasn’t creepy and that this family wasn’t all wrong. Sometimes it would get easier. Then we would get a phone call from Ben’s mom.

She would call every couple of weeks and talk to Ben about what his dad had been doing. She and his dad seemed to have a weird connection. It seemed like she would know when he had been messing around sexually, and he would tell her what he had done. Sometimes she would tell the bishop, or she would have him tell the bishop; I’m not sure which. It was always a big crisis and then when she decided that he had repented, we were told to forgive and forget. I told Ben that was what abusers want you to do.  Then they can keep hurting you.

One day Ben was on the phone with his mom. He was white and clearly devastated. He said, “How can we know that our wives are safe? What about our children?” I knew this was big. Ben told me that his youngest sister, who was fourteen, had her best friend over to spend the night. Ben’s dad had groped her. For a while, I just sat there in shock. I thought of that poor girl and her parents who had trusted the wrong family. I thought of the betrayal of a young girl by her father. This was her best friend. What else was this man capable of? I felt the shame of being in his family. I knew that what he had done was criminal, but I had no proof. I had heard the story from someone who heard the story from someone else. I knew I was supposed to forget what I had been told, but I never did.  Later, when the sister got married, her best friend was in the wedding line. It was jarring to think that this was the girl my father-in-law had abused. She was so beautiful. One of the prettiest girls I had ever seen and she was standing in the wedding line only a stone’s throw from the man who groped her in her sleep. I wondered how he had managed to get away with it. The girl must not have known what happened. For a moment I wondered if I had remembered correctly. I checked back in my journal where I recorded what I had been told. The girl’s name was the same.

One of the most disturbing things I witnessed was at a birthday party for Ben’s dad. Ben’s mother had bought her husband a high powered telescope. I was appalled. I looked at Ben and there didn’t seem to be any concern in his eyes. Was I crazy? I knew they had said he had an addiction to peeping on women and no one bats an eye when he gets a high powered telescope for his birthday? To watch deer? I wanted to run down the mountain and tell every woman in the valley to pull her shutters. I felt so helpless.

When Ben and I moved to Texas, that meant that we had some good distance from Ben’s dad. It was only occasionally that we had to see them and gradually his hold over Ben receded. I was a little relieved that our first child was a son. Our second son came soon after. Even though they were boys, I still couldn’t quell my anxiety. I remember preparing for a trip to visit Ben’s family and I gathered my two toddler boys close and talked to them about appropriate and inappropriate touching. Ben saw what I was doing and became enraged at me. We both knew why I was doing it. He said, “You give them those talks every time we go and see my family and they are going to put it together!” I was hurt and angry. Did my children not matter? I didn’t even want to think about me. I didn’t matter either. What if I woke to find his hand in my shirt? What would happen? I knew that I would be expected to forgive and move on. If my children were victimized, I would be expected to do the same. I felt so unloved and afraid.

Eventually, after my third son was born and I was in therapy, I talked to my bishop about my anxiety about Ben’s dad and my children. I told him that my father-in-law had a sex addiction and a diagnosis of NPD. I suspected that he had victimized children in the past and was concerned that he would hurt my children or me. I told him that he was going through a second set of church authorized sex addiction recovery sessions, but that I had doubts they would be successful. He assured me that my concerns were valid. I also talked to my counselor and he encouraged me to take measures to protect my children. Still, I didn’t have the courage to do it until I prayed and knew it was the right thing to do.

First, I had to talk to Ben. It started out really badly. I told him that I no longer felt comfortable spending the night at his parent’s house or allowing his dad to have any time with our children without direct supervision from one of us. He was angry. He told me he should never have told me about his dad. He should have known that I wouldn’t understand. That hurt. I remember asking him some hard questions. What would he do if his dad victimized me? Did I matter to him? What would happen if he hurt one of our children? At first he denied that possibility, but I persisted. Did he think his dad was capable of sleeping with a prostitute, visiting strip clubs, or groping a teenager in his home? Did he really know I was safe? I’ll never forget the tortured expression on his face. He knew I was right to be concerned. There was a risk, and he knew, maybe better than I did, that no one mattered in his family except his dad. If one of us was hurt, his dad would not be held accountable. He agreed to the boundaries.

Second, I had to tell my mother-in-law we would not be staying with them. I insisted that we just loved Ben’s sister and wanted to stay with her. She insisted that Ben’s dad would be so disappointed if we didn’t stay. She lovingly asked if there was anything that was making me feel like not staying at their house. I knew that she knew why. I decided to tell her the sexual addiction was a problem. I wanted to prevent a bad situation. She insisted that if I didn’t stay with them, that his depression would get worse. I held my ground and she did too. Finally I said that the three incidents that caused me concern were, the peeping on the girl in Vernal, the J.C. Penny peeping, and the groping of the fourteen year old friend. Her tone changed instantly. “How did you hear about those things?!?” Then she pivoted, “Those things never happened,” she said emphatically. I said, “I would never make those things up. You told Ben those things and he told me. Do you think Ben made them up?” She changed tack. “I know that (he) would NEVER hurt you. I can promise you that! I have received revelation and I know that he would never hurt you or your boys.” I guess I was supposed to take comfort in her supernatural ability to know what her husband was capable of, but I knew she didn’t protect Joann’s friend, and I knew she couldn’t protect me or my boys.

I was at my parent’s house at the time of this conversation. I was devastated by how my valid concerns and efforts to protect my family had been received by someone I thought cared about me. Ben’s mom announced to everyone that Ben and I would no longer stay with Ben’s dad because of me. Ben’s dad called Ben and said, “Just let me know if I need to go away for a while so that you can stay at the house.” Some family members were very angry with me, but others were surprisingly sympathetic. I found out later that another sister-in-law had expressed similar concerns and set similar boundaries.

Ben went up to visit his family first, and I drove down to meet him later. His family seemed to go out of their way to be nice to him and treat him special. He assured me that everything was going to be fine and that no one was going to be mean to me. We ended up staying in a hotel which made everything a lot easier. It was awkward, but our new boundaries were respected and although they were challenged regularly in our yearly visits, we maintained them and our children were safe. I would have talks with the boys about sexual abuse before each visit and check with them after. 

Ben’s dad would toy with me. He would go out and mingle with the grandkids when he knew I was visiting with other family members. I had to stay vigilant and always be aware of where he was. I would feel a jolt of panic if I saw him with the children. I would approach them and watch from a distance. Once he locked eyes with me and then took my son around a hill to where I couldn’t see them. I didn’t know if I should panic and make a scene. I was sure he was hurting my boy, but then a moment later, they were back. He did that with two of my boys that day ages 10 and 9. The first chance I got I asked both of the children directly, “Did your grandpa touch you?” They both said no. It was just a game for him. He wanted me to know that it didn’t matter how hard I tried to protect myself, that he was in control. He could have hurt them. He didn’t. My concerns were invalid.

He was a cunning abuser.  His abuse of his wife was obvious, but he was subtle with everyone else.  He was condescending and cruel to his wife, but she played her part so well that it almost seemed like she deserved it.  It was almost impossible not to despise her. Aside from the victims of his sexual abuse, he was very indirect. He never said an unkind thing to me in all the years I was married to Ben.  He used his enablers to keep me in line. The sister who dressed me down for disrespect, his wife who pressured me to put my children at risk; they were his flying monkeys doing his dirty work for him and all the while he could sit back and look like the innocent victim of my judgemental cruelty.  He was very subtle and shrewd.

One day I overheard Ben and his mom discussing his dad’s latest plan to make money by making some kind of investment in Thailand.  I knew that Thailand was the pedophile capital of the world and my stomach dropped. He was going to go there to victimize vulnerable children in a third world country!  I decided to call his bishop and express my concerns. His bishop was aware of his plans and knew exactly why he wanted to go to that particular country. It was a relief to talk to someone who seemed to be as concerned about his behavior as I was.  That bishop, as well as many others and a family counselor, tried to help his family and hold him accountable, but that was difficult to do. He had a superhuman ability to justify his behavior. Nothing was ever his fault and his web of enablers constantly fed his need to feel superior.  

Still, I could tell his power over the family was fading over time. His two sons had encouraged their mother to leave him. When Ben’s grandpa died, his mom made the trip to be with her family for her father’s funeral. Ben’s dad was angry that he wasn’t getting her attention and he took his revenge by going to a strip club instead of being there to support his wife of over forty years bury her father. Her family was livid. Even her children were angry. He had been unworthy to attend the temple for years even missing the weddings of his children. He still tried to command religious authority, even insisting on making a speech before a baby blessing in which he was unworthy to take part in, but such displays only seemed to make him seem more pathetic. He still had a hold on several family members. Ben’s brother had joined the army after his mission. He didn’t go to college, choosing a career in sales instead. These things were in line with the values of his father. Ben’s sisters were likewise influenced, but they were putting time and energy into their own families. Ben’s dad’s constant demands on the time and energy of his wife made things difficult for them too. His assurances that this month he was going to start making his fortune in his network marketing business, started ringing hollow as grinding years of poverty passed. I saw several healthy signs that perhaps the iron grip of the abuser would not crush the family after all. There seemed to be more acceptance and empathy for me and other family members who stepped outside of the controlling grip of the web the abuser had woven.

Then Ben’s dad was diagnosed with stage four liver and colon cancer. I felt a wave of relief. He would be gone, and I could enjoy family gatherings without the stress of making sure he wasn’t going to hurt my kids! Everything was going to be okay. How wrong I was.

The cancer re-established his complete dominance over his family. He was no longer a weak and tantrum prone narcissist, he was now a cancer victim.  This rapid transformation from abuser to victim was a frightening thing to observe. A narcissist is at his best when he is seen as a victim, so he relished his new role. He was intoxicated by the idea of beating the odds and overcoming the cancer. His family was elated when he told them he would repent and get his recommend renewed.  He was going to be a new man, but first, he had chosen the most unconventional and expensive treatment plan available which would involve an extended stay at a health spa in Mexico. Ben’s siblings immediately began taking out loans to make it happen. He gave stirring speeches, and brought my own teenage son to tears. I was terrified at the power of his manipulations. I suddenly understood cult leaders and the power they had over their congregations.  I was sure that Ben would fall for it and we would be sucked in financially. Fortunately, Ben and I agreed to limit our support to what we could handle in spite of incredible pressure from family members. They did make it happen. He had everything he wanted, but even so, he was going to die. He came back from Mexico, he “repented” of his sins (which sins he repented of are unclear) and had his temple recommend restored before he passed away. Now everything is forgiven and forgotten for good…….except no one is allowed to talk about what happened and the ways it has impacted our lives. At least not openly.

For a while, I hoped that now that he was gone, that we could talk about what he had done to us and how we could move forward and heal, but such openness about the past is not allowed with most family members. I have talked to Ben’s mom who has admitted that her husband was abusive. Unfortunately, she wants to think that the abuse was not that bad. Sometimes she assures me that she plans to have some family counseling sessions. Nothing comes of it. I suspect she is telling me what I want to hear. I sent a letter to one sister that I felt a close connection with.  The letter was an explanation of my feelings about her dad and how I would never see him the way she does and if that is something we can agree to disagree about. I didn’t hear back from her. When I brought it up weeks later, it was really awkward. I broke the one rule in the family that is not forgivable; I refused the family narrative.  

In a narcissistic family system, appearances are the only thing that matter.  Looking good is essential. In order to feed the insatiable ego of the narcissist, even in death, he must be praised and felt sorry for and his perfect family must live out his narcissistic fantasies.  The family narrative is that he lived a tragic and flawed life, but he has been redeemed. His spirit apparently appears in the temple from time to time according to some family members. The family narrative is that everyone has healed, except Ben and me.  We were told that we project our own dysfunction onto them (My dysfunction in particular since I am the outsider). In spite of that, there is ample evidence of serious psychological dysfunction in almost every family member. The carnage is undeniable, but the victims are unable to see it and unwilling to confront the awful truth about the abuse that they suffered.  As always, the victims don’t matter in a narcissistic system. They need to forgive and forget as soon as possible and then go back to playing their assigned roles. And the cycle of abuse repeats itself within the family. New abusers and new victims, but the same abusive patterns modeled and practiced for generations.

A year ago in therapy, I spent hours and hours writing letters to different members of Ben’s family. I was convinced that if I said the right things, that they would love and accept me, that they would understand that I was not to blame for the situation that their father created. If I just wrote convincingly enough, they would heal and we could be an eternal family. Eventually, after literally hundreds of type-written pages, I wept. I wept and wept and wept as I said goodbye to my husband’s family. I still love them, but they don’t love me and they probably never will. I can’t change them and I’ve finally accepted that.  They want me to do the one thing I can’t do; deny my reality and trade it for theirs.

Last summer we visited Idaho. We didn’t see any members of Ben’s family. I don’t know when or if we will see them again. Even the thought of it makes me physically ill. The only people I allow into my life now are people who respect my boundaries. The only relationships I invest in are those that feel good and allow me to speak openly when they don’t. Life is too short to cultivate the other kind.

I still love them. They were a part of my life and my husband’s life and our shared history. They are valuable children of God who were abused by someone who should have loved and nurtured them. They were betrayed, manipulated, exploited, and lied to. The wounds in my relationship with them are just a fraction of the sad consequences of his terrible choices. I don’t blame them, but they aren’t safe for me.  I love them too much and I feel too sorry for them, and I’m too eager to save them when it isn’t within my power to do so. In the end, God is the only one who can sort it out. They have their path and I have mine and those paths diverged. Thankfully, my husband continues to walk the path with me. We have plenty of problems in our little family, but we are honest and authentic and strive to meet the needs of our children rather than exploit them for our narcissistic supply.

Some may question why I call my husband’s father a predator. To me, a predator is a complex part of an ecosystem that is cunning and exploitative and I feel that word encapsulates my observations of him and the web of enablers that surrounded him in life. I don’t use the word predator to dehumanize him.  On the contrary, I hope my account reveals the man behind the epithet. He was not a monster, he was human, but he was as dangerous as a monster. He was clever and manipulative and I indirectly enabled his behavior with my silence. I know that because I was never completely under the control of the family system, I was not privy to most of their secrets. In the beginning, they let me in on a few things, but I had a troubling habit of remembering them. I don’t think they ever really trusted me. I’ve always seen his abuse as an iceberg in which what I saw was a small fraction of the whole.

Once, Ben’s sister was in a custody dispute with an ex-husband over their two daughters. She called Ben in a very angry and defensive tone and demanded to know what he had told her ex. He confronted her with the fact that their dad had groped a teenager in their home. She said dismissively, “That is nothing. What do you know? What have you told him?” Ben said he had no idea what she was talking about and that he had said nothing. I have often thought about what we don’t know that would make the sexual assault of a minor child “nothing” in comparison? What was Ben’s sister so desperate to keep a secret from her ex-husband that would endanger her custody bid? How many victims did this man have? What is the shape of the iceberg beneath the surface?

I may never know. I was never meant to know. I was only meant to supply. I supplied my children, my facade of normalcy, my smiling face in family photos, and my silence. Until now. I am silent no more. All predators and their enablers have been given warning to stay away from me and everyone I love. I will expose you. I have no sympathy for you. I will not be manipulated or made to serve you. I will set boundaries with you, I will call law enforcement on you when you break the law, and I will report you to the church authorities. Enablers slander my reputation, but they know the truth even if they don’t want to look at it.  The truth has a habit of resurfacing no matter how hard you want to deny it. I will never again be made to stay silent.

Cleaning the Inside of the Cup; Confronting Abuse in the Church

This family picture shows an ordinary LDS family in Pocatello, ID. They were targeted and victimized by predator Robert Berchtold.

I just finished watching, “Abducted in Plain Sight,” the documentary about Jan Broberg’s abuse by Robert Berchtold, the pedophile who kidnapped and brainwashed her as a teenage girl. The Broberg’s and the Berchtold’s were families actively involved in their LDS ward. Berchtold’s predatory behavior, as documented in the show, was enabled on many levels within the community. Social structures such as parents, church leadership, and law enforcement were ill equipped to confront Berchtold’s behavior. Although I believe we are much better now at protecting our children from pedophiles, this documentary is an important glimpse at our vulnerabilities and how a predator was able to exploit them.  If you haven’t watched it, it’s currently on Netflix.

There are a few things that stood out to me.  First, the total honesty of the Brobergs in their interviews was remarkable.  The honest account of everything that happened, including their shockingly bad judgement, had the ring of truth to it even though it was incredibly bizarre.  So bizarre, it defies rational comprehension, and yet who would make it up? The homosexual blackmail, the seduction of the mom, the multiple abductions of the girl, the bribing of the Mexican guard, the abysmal failure of the justice system to protect the public and this poor girl from her abuser, combine to make an unforgettable story.  If it were fiction, I would think it too improbable to gain a wide audience. 

I want to explore the ways that Robert Berchtold was able to manipulate the social structure of the membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints to enable him in his crimes.  He was a master manipulator who, as most predators do, was able to create a culture of silence through shaming his victims, hide behind a convincing facade of charisma, and finally twist the sympathies of victims and authority figures in his favor by casting himself as a victim.

First, he used shame as a tool to create a culture of silence. He seduced both of Jan’s parents and in doing so, he was able to blackmail them and dull their moral sensibilities. He had them so concerned about their own sins that they couldn’t see that he was orchestrating it all for his own ends.  If they did see it, they felt powerless to fight it because he had fooled so many other people. He felt no guilt or remorse. He walked into the church building each week, took the sacrament, looked other members in the eye, while committing the blackest of sins. Predators sin with no remorse. They shame others while being themselves free of it.  They entrap others in sin and then control them with guilt and threats. These are good people and often children who are manipulated, shamed, and lied to. They are kept in a haze of emotional exhaustion that keeps them from seeing what should be obvious. The problem is, it isn’t obvious, because predators are often incredibly skilled at living a double life and putting up a convincing facade that often includes societal status and money.  That leads me to the second point.

Second, Robert Berchtold was able to use a facade of charm and financial success to mask the demon within. Members of the church are vulnerable to manipulation from flattering men who appear successful at business.  There is something about the LDS culture that my seminary teacher observed many years ago. He mentioned it in class and I’ve never forgotten it.  He said that many people see riches as evidence of God’s favor. We see someone who is wealthy and charismatic as righteous because he has success in the world.  He said that you hear people in church mention that their money is a blessing from God. He argued that riches are no more a mark of righteousness now than they were at the time of the Savior.  The reason I remember this point was because I was raised in the church and had never questioned that idea. “Of course,” I thought, “If you’re righteous God is going to give you money and success.”  The dissonance of that seminary lesson has stayed with me, but over time I have found myself in firm agreement with my seminary teacher. In fact, I have often seen men who have power and influence, money and status, who have shown themselves to be predators both inside and outside of the church.  

For anyone who is in doubt about the tendency of LDS culture to be vulnerable to the “money equals righteousness” fallacy, look at the fraud statistics.  We are far more prone to involve ourselves in get rich quick schemes like network marketing, real estate schemes, ponzi schemes, or other high risk investments. Summer sales jobs are extremely common within our membership where promises of easy money are tossed out casually when the reality is often quite different.  The Brobergs were good, simple, naive people who were vulnerable to the charismatic manipulations of a man who was nothing like them. Robert Berchtold was suave, seductive, an accomplished liar, and had most, if not all, of the church congregation and surrounding community convinced he was a good guy. Even after he abducted Jan and took her to Mexico, the church community was supportive of him.  Why? Because they were victimized too. If a member of the church comes to us with a charismatic smile, a high profile calling, a good job, and a few flattering words, we are like putty in their hands. They victimize us and we are unprepared to defend ourselves. That is part of the reason Utah has the highest rate of financial fraud in the United States.  

There was an article published in the Deseret News last April called, “Does Utah deserve the title of ‘fraud capital of the United States’?”  It explains the reasons we as members are vulnerable to financial predators, but I suspect the same things could be said about our vulnerability to sexual predators.  Thankfully, there is now a dedicated regional U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission office for Utah to combat fraud.  It is the only state that has one. Hopefully that will help curb the trend. The state lawmakers have also stepped up creating a white collar crime offender registry similar to a sex offender registry to help inform and protect potential victims.  As members, we can’t afford to be so naive as we have been in the past. It is time we started being as wise as serpents and not just harmless as doves.

The third point I wanted to make was how Robert Berchtold was able to manipulate the sympathy of those around him.  He convinced Jan’s parents that part of his therapy for his pedophilia was to lay next to their daughter in bed alone with her.  They thought by giving him access to their child that they were helping him recover. They were so consumed with fear and guilt that they felt obligated to sacrifice and do the “right thing.”  Like Abraham offering up his son as a sacrifice, they were offering up their daughter to atone for their mistakes. I am convinced that the Brobergs not only allowed Berchtold’s abuse out of coercion, I believe they thought they were redeeming themselves.  They were being charitable by allowing him to do this. This was AFTER he had abducted her and taken her to Mexico. I would find such manipulation to be unbelievable if I had not witnessed it with a predator and his victims in my own life. Skilled manipulators are able to convince their victims that they are the victims and that by enabling the abuse, you are doing a noble thing.  If you call out their lies, you become the bad guy.

The manipulation of Jan was horrifyingly fantastic.  He used the conditioning that we use with our children in the church to his advantage.  He convinced her to believe a religious-like narrative in which her obedience to her omniscient alien parents would secure the safety of humanity.  Her disobedience would bring calamity and destruction to her family. Children have an exaggerated view of their own power and are vulnerable to this kind of ego-centric narrative.  By convincing her of this religious narrative, he made her into something of a cult member. Now, her parents were not only battling their own shame and their own sexual attractions, they were also battling their daughter who was as obsessed with being with Berchtold as he was with being with her. I can’t be certain, but I don’t think any of the Brobergs were aware of how other members of the family were being victimized until Jan was much older and no longer the object of Berchtold’s obsession.  A culture of silence ensured that Berchtold was able to continue his abuse by isolating his victims.

So how can we, as members of the church, guard ourselves against these kinds of predators?  First, we can say no to shame. There is no sin that is worth hiding. Christ has suffered for all of it.  Confess it, forsake it, and give it over to Christ. The Savior can’t save us from the sins we hide. The scriptures say, “There hath no temptation taken you, but such as is common to man.”  We all sin. Let’s be real about it and deal with it rather than obsess about what other people will think if they know. Predators take the mistakes people make, sometimes mistakes that they set them up to make, and use them as blackmail.  If enough church members say no to shame and embrace the reality of the Savior’s atonement, those threats lose their power. The forgiveness of the Savior is empowering to victims. It allows us to regain our confidence and emotional strength which we can use to fight the abuse.

Second, we can learn the lesson my seminary teacher taught me all those years ago.  Money and charm do not equal righteousness. Yes, most members with high callings have good jobs and nice stuff.  It’s easy to think that the trappings of Earthly success are the mark of God’s favor. This becomes a kind of materialist faith in which God is a banker doling out material blessings to the faithful.  The truth is, callings, money, jobs, and all the rest are what people see. God looks on the heart. None of that means anything to the Lord. There are plenty of our members hiding in high places in the church community who have black hearts.  They can be doctor’s, lawyers, judges, church officials, and politicians. Sometimes they are brought to justice in this life and sometimes they aren’t. As disciples of Christ we need to start seeing one another as He does and not as the world does. If we do, we won’t be as easily deceived.  

Third, we can talk to our kids about predators.  We can tell them that it is never okay for an adult or anyone to touch them sexually.  We can warn them of people who might use the church or other religious ideas to manipulate and victimize them.  Before we can talk to our kids about predators, we have to be willing to accept their existence ourselves. The Brobergs seem like stupid people for believing the lies they were told.  In truth, the only reason they believed Berchtold’s lies was because they wanted to believe them so badly. They wanted to believe that LDS men who go to church and have wives and families are good people who can be trusted with children.  We cling to the illusions we want to have about the world and the dangers we are surrounded with. We don’t want to believe that evil exists and that it can take the shape of something that appears harmless and wholesome on the outside. We want to believe the false reality we believed before the evidence showed something else.  If that means ignoring, minimizing, or denying that evidence, we will do it. Anyone can be a victim.  

I’ve seen people manipulated by predators.  I’ve seen entire family systems under the control of predators.  It happens. I’ve been manipulated by them too. I’ve felt the guilt and shame of being a part of an enabling system; trapped in a false reality where good is evil and evil is good.  Speaking lies is required; speaking truth is blaspheme. A culture of secrecy and silence keeps us from being agents of change to make our society better. As the world becomes more wicked and our national social fabric unravels, abuse will become more widespread.  The internet makes the whole world a stalking ground for the predators of the world. We need to arm ourselves against the evils of our time. We need to say no to shame, no to materialistic religion, and no to a culture of silence that feeds the illusion that it doesn’t happen in our church.   

When I was being manipulated by a predatory system, I knowingly put my children at risk.  I allowed the predator access to my little boys because I was shamed into thinking that if I put up boundaries to protect them, that I would be hurting the predator’s recovery from depression.  It was hard to open up about the situation. I felt like I couldn’t even write the truth in a private journal. I couldn’t even pray about it out loud. I wished I could just forget the things I had seen, heard and been told, but they kept intruding into my thoughts.  The truth would not be denied. I broke the culture of silence. I talked to my bishop and my therapist. I prayed and pleaded to know what to do. The answer was unanimous. I was to protect my children. I did. I put up boundaries. When questioned by enabling family members, I was rejected.  They denied telling me things I knew they had told me. It was implied that I was fabricating stories I would have never made up and wanted to forget. Even then, I desperately wanted to preserve a relationship with them. I stuck to the boundaries I had set, and to my knowledge, my boys were not harmed. I and they were lucky.  I’ve overcome the need I felt to keep the secrets of the predatory system I was a part of. I don’t need to protect their secrets anymore. If any members of it read this, I suspect they will have no doubt of the identity of the predator. If they choose to read my next post in the series, there will be no doubt. They may be angry at me for tarnishing his memory, and that’s okay.  I am done with playing this part.

He was a lifelong active member of the church who held many callings.  He taught elementary school in two different states. He married in the temple and had six children.  He also sexually victimized women and girls for decades. I don’t think anyone outside his immediate family knew the truth, and we were all shamed and manipulated into silence.  We were told he was not responsible for his acts and that he had repented, and yet the behavior continued. If we did not forgive and forget each new offense, we were hurting his recovery from depression.  We were judgmental and unforgiving. He wasn’t on any sex offender registries and had no criminal record. He was smart and careful and was the most manipulative person I have ever met. They are out there.  We need to be honest with ourselves and others about the reality of their existence. We need to be aware of the grooming behaviors that predators use. We need to be vigilant and refuse to ignore the warning signs.  It can happen and it does happen in our churches and in our families.  

I bring my personal story of a family predator into the discussion, not to speak ill of the dead-he is deceased- or pass judgement on him.  I leave that in the capable hands of my Savior. I bring my personal experience in to show empathy to those who are victimized by predators.  Some watched this movie and had disdain and revulsion toward Jan’s parents. I don’t. I disagree with the choices they made, but I understand why they made them because I lived in a social system that was controlled by a manipulative narcissist.  I’ve seen first hand how it works and why it works. We rely on the people around us to give us a sense of what truth is. If what we see is drastically different than what those around us seem to see, we question our own perception. It is only as I have cultivated a relationship with my Savior and consulted with mental health professionals that I have found the confidence to challenge the social systems around me.  Even then, it takes tremendous courage. Even as I write this, I have to remind myself that I am not obligated to keep the family secrets. The denial is still strong with many members of the family and they can choose to live in it, but they don’t get to write my story or keep me from telling it.

As I live my life, I am amazed when I find victims who are strong enough to tell their stories for the benefit of others.  Jan’s resilience and strength is incredible to witness. My favorite part is at the end when she confronts her abuser in court.  He tries to imply that she is motivated by book sales and fame. She tells him coldly that she is motivated by the desire to expose predators like him to the world.  She has become a powerful advocate for child victims because she and her family had the courage to face the truth about themselves and what happened to them. In some ways, her parents have had to have even more courage because their experience is less likely to elicit sympathy and more likely to elicit judgement and condemnation.  Their willingness to submit to that judgement rather than lie to themselves and others about what they did has made Jan’s recovery and the family’s recovery much more complete. Secrets and lies destroy. The truth, even when it is uncomfortable, sets us free.

The only way we can destroy the evil among us is if we talk about it.  I hope my words help to shine a light on a problem that we face within our membership.  As we confront evil with courage and honesty, as the Brobergs did, the Savior can heal us and those we love. His grace is sufficient for us!  His angels stand ready to assist us as we take the steps necessary to purge the church of the evils of abuse. A culture of silence polishes and shines the outside of the cup while allowing filth to grow and fester within.  Christ wants us to be better. Let us roll up our sleeves and commit ourselves to battling the abusers in our midst and purge their behavior from among us. Let us clean and sterilize the cup on the inside.  That is what the Savior would have us do.

This is the Broberg family today. They have accepted the reality of the abuse and worked together to bring their abuser to justice and support Jan in her complete recovery. Lesser families would have denied and hidden the terrible truth of what happened and what they did to allow it to happen, but instead they become advocates for abuse victims by sharing their story for the benefit of others. They are a model for the rest of us that hope and healing are possible when we confess and forsake our sins. Abuse happens in families, but the Broberg’s show that there is healing and hope through our Savior who has the power to save.
This is Jan Broberg’s Twitter photo. This beautiful vibrant woman is a survivor and a warrior. Through her faith and resilience, she has recovered from her abuse, forgiven her family, helped lead them to healing, and become a personal hero to me.

Points and Lines; Seeing People Through God’s Eyes

I went to linger longer today.  For those who aren’t familiar with it, linger longer is a ward activity that involves staying after church for a potluck meal.  Potluck meals are a pain when you have young children. You have to make sure they get something healthy to eat, that they are playing nicely, and that they don’t decide to go eat off other people’s plates…..or tip over the buffet table.  As you socialize with people, you have to have part of your brain always monitoring your kiddos. Is that kid screaming mine? Or did he cause some other kid to scream? Is that my kid with the mountain of dessert on his plate? Then I’m always worried I’m going to zone out in the middle of a conversation and embarrass myself.  With a big family, there is the problem of where to sit. We have large round tables that seat about ten people. With a family of six, we usually share a table with another family, but it can be tricky to make sure you don’t take too many seats or wind up with a couple of kids with no where to sit. That’s just awkward!  

Anyway, when my depression/anxiety got bad a year ago, I told Ben absolutely not.  Even when my sons would beg and cry, I said no way. Then when things deteriorated with the Relief Society, I didn’t know if I would ever go to a linger longer again.  The smell of the food in the church house would make me feel ill. The fact that we actually made food and stayed the whole time and I didn’t panic and run to a classroom to breathe into a paper sack, is remarkable.  I actually had a good time. I introduced myself to a family that moved in recently. I mingled. It was good! There was anxiety. I didn’t eat much. There were moments of awkward wandering, but it was overall a pleasant social gathering.  

So I’ve done some hard things lately.  I’ve started the school year. I’ve been tackling my procrastination list.  I’ve been socializing more. I went to a pool party, helped clean a sister’s house twice, and went to a friend’s birthday lunch.  Being more present with my ward family and more socially conscious has been a growing experience that has moments of discomfort, but overall it has been good.

I was thinking today about my last post about sisters posturing.  Honestly, I’m not sure I didn’t participate in the posturing. As the sacrament was going around, I did some serious introspection.  My mind was exploring the idea of female posturing and whether or not if I had participated in it. If I had, was it a sin. I decided that I didn’t think it was.  Then I had a thought come into my mind that I think was inspiration. I’m going to try to explain it using a math metaphor.  

So I was concerned about the possibility that I had engaged in the posturing I had observed at the cleaning activity.  Then, if I had ignored my own participation in it and yet written about others engaging in it, that would have been quite rude and dishonest.  But upon introspection, I couldn’t remember for sure whether I had or not. I know I didn’t engage with the sisters with authenticity. Instead, I kind of detached and tried to focus on the tile grout.  The epiphany came when I realized that it didn’t matter whether I had postured or not. The fact that I was moving toward authenticity was what God cared about. This idea of movement or trajectory is what caught my mind and then I began to put the pieces together.

I stayed up late reading the scriptures.  I can’t remember which chapter it was but it was Paul writing about the adoption of the Gentiles and how the Jews were the covenant people and that they were blessed and favored of the Lord, but then they lost that position and it was given to the gentiles.  Paul’s style is very complex and analytical, but the spirit was with me and the meaning that the spirit was revealing to me was very clear. God doesn’t care where you are. He cares about your trajectory. Because he sees us not as a point in space, to use my mathematical metaphor, but from an eternal perspective, it is more like a line.  Our past is one point on the line. Our present is another point. Our future, is the third point. God cares about what our trajectory is. Are we on a negative slope? If so, the Lord is not pleased. We need to repent. If our trajectory is positive, the Lord is pleased. Of course, we want to try to make the slope as steep as we can, but the crucial thing is, as God, he sees the slope; while as mortals we only see the present.  We see the dot on grid. He sees the line.

Lines can communicate a lot more than points. If we see where a person is coming from and where they’re going, we can understand and love them more.

When I look at the scriptural history through this metaphor, that chapter I read is very clear.  Consider the Jews at the time of the Savior. They occupied a privileged place. They obeyed the law of Moses as they interpreted it.  They looked forward to a Savior to deliver them from Rome and other political oppressors. They were imperfect, but compared to the gentiles, they were high on the graph.  Then the Savior came to give them a higher law, to show them a better way, to invite them to change the trajectory of their spiritual growth. Instead of accepting this invitation, they rejected him and then killed him.  This put their trajectory severely negative. The Savior put them beneath even Sodom and Gomorrah because although the Jews were superficially righteous, they were unwilling to change their trajectory. They insisted on rejecting the opportunity to repent and usher in new truth into their system.  It is recorded in several places where the Savior marvels at the faith and obedience of certain gentiles he comes into contact with. Although he never taught in gentile cities or ministered outside of Judea, he understood that the time would come after he was rejected and murdered, that his gospel would be given to the gentiles where it would spread and grow, changing the spiritual landscape of the world.  

As a personal application, I see myself having my emotional and spiritual ups and downs.  I know where my dot is on the graph, but I also see my trajectory. I’m on a solidly positive slope.  Did I posture in my interactions with the other women? Perhaps. Was I dishonest with myself and with them, hiding behind a mask of deception?  Perhaps. It doesn’t really matter as long as my dot is moving toward authenticity. If it is, that is all that matters. I’m not going to attain perfection in a day.  I’m going to fall short of the ideal that I am working toward, but I need not become discouraged or ashamed.  

This is a big breakthrough for me in having compassion toward myself and others.  It also helps me to understand the Savior’s interactions on this Earth. He didn’t see the harlot, the publican, the fisherman, the leper, the pharisee, etc; he saw their past, present, and future.  The harlot’s dot was low on the graph and that was all the pharisee could see.  The Savior saw her humility, her willingness to repent, her desire to improve her spiritual and emotional condition.  He was impressed not by her position on the graph, but on the trajectory of her line. In contrast, the pharisee’s dot was high on the graph, but his pride and his treatment of the Savior put his trajectory in the negative, prompting the Savior to correct him.  

I’ll use another example that has some political overtones, just to keep things interesting.  Let’s consider those who come to our Southern border seeking asylum. They are low on the graph.  Most of them have little to nothing in the way of personal possessions. As our President has so cruelly observed, they come from “sh*thole countries.”  Still, the wise investor doesn’t look at companies that look sucessfulsuccessful in the present.  The wise investors look to the future to see what the company’s potential is given a place in   sufficient support and investment.  When America is at her finest, she welcomes the refugee and the immigrant knowing that those who have the fortitude and determination to come to this land usually have the potential needed to be successful here. Their success has made America the greatest country in the world.  By closing our doors to them, we deprive ourselves of their potential while also earning ourselves a rebuke from the Savior.

When the Savior teaches that the last shall be first and the first shall be last it always makes me think.  He is perfectly fair and just. He is no respecter of persons. He sees me as a line, not a point. I hope that I can learn to see others that way as well.  I hope that as I live my life that I can be the person who is a friend when the chips are down, a confidant when the truth is hard to share, a comfort to the one who is sitting in a dark place.  If I can do those things, perhaps my Master will be pleased with me.

Waiting

Today I helped a new sister clean her house before she moved in.  I usually never do stuff like this, but I decided to today for several reasons.  For one thing, this lady was assigned as one of my ministering sisters. Another thing, is I am trying to be supportive of the new Relief Society presidency.  Another thing is, it’s good for me to serve and socialize even though it isn’t my favorite thing to do.

When I arrived, I saw familiar faces from church standing in a circle and chatting.  I had just dropped off my baby with the sitter and was eager to get started, but I engaged a little in the small talk about the house.  I thought it interesting to see how each sister chose a different part of the house to clean. I chose the tile grout. Why?

I like getting deep into the dirty parts in the foundation.  A clean floor is a clean house to me. Other sisters wiped out cupboards or did other stuff.  I didn’t really pay attention to them. I just focused on my job. As I listened to the other sisters talk, I thought about all the reasons I don’t fit in.  I remember long ago my counselor talked to me about women and the way we compete with one another for status. Being thin, pretty, a good housekeeper, a devoted mother, having a wealthy husband, having a successful career…..these are all values that we compete in.  Inevitably, I find myself feeling inadequate as others jockey for position within the female social framework. Why? I am reasonably thin, well educated, and otherwise successful. What makes me ashamed? It is self-knowledge.

Self-esteem has always been a tricky thing for me.  You can’t esteem what you don’t understand and I don’t really know myself.  This depressive episode has charted more territory in my self-discovery than ever before, but I don’t always like what I find.  Self-discovery can be painful when I confront my own illusions, my motivations, my fears, and everything else that I prefer not to look at.  Also, as I discover more about myself, I realize that who I am is not under my control nearly as much as I wanted to think it was. I am a product of forces like my community, my family, my genetics, my habits.  These things are like concrete. At one time, they may have been flexible and moldable, but over the course of the forty years I have been alive, they have hardened into the shape of me. This shape I am still discovering, but one thing I am certain of:  no amount of working out at the gym, reading to enrich my mind, or self-improvement effort is going to make me over into the person who can, with authenticity, present myself to others as anything but a deeply flawed person. I am convinced that the only way I want to live is with authenticity, so I don’t have much to say in superficial conversations that seem to involve posturing.  

This is tricky territory I am wandering into.  I don’t want to imply that I am judging and condemning other women for their posturing.  I would just as soon condemn my dog for licking her bottom. It is what dogs do. As women, we posture and compete and jockey for position.  It’s what we do. I just don’t do it and I never really understood why before, but today I think I made some progress. Sometimes I thought something was wrong with me and that was why I seemed disinterested, discouraged, or even annoyed during these social interactions.  Now I see that what is right with me is what is wrong with me. My own self-knowledge of my flaws, coupled with my determination to live with authenticity, result in my overall disenchantment with superficial human interaction in general.

So what I thought in the past was social anxiety, seems to be to be something else.  It is a tendency toward self preservation; a need to live authentically and be accepted for who I truly am, not for a projection I’d like others to think I am.  So as I scrubbed the stains from the tile floor, I considered myself, in that space, being me, observing the other sisters around me, and seeing everything from this new perspective.

And then, I started thinking about the people who were not there–the previous owners of the home.  Of course, they had foreclosed the house and left it in a sorry state, so no one was very complimentary of them.  We were engaged in cleaning the grime of years that had accumulated in what had been their home. Then the thought occurred to me, that these faceless, nameless people had been in our ward.  They were not members of the church, but they had lived in my ward boundaries and as such, they were technically in my ward family. They had struggled and suffered and lived out their days in my neighborhood and only now did I spare a thought for them.  Why was I cleaning their house now, and not months or years before? Why was this family worthy of my help and the other wasn’t? Were they not just as loved by their Heavenly Father? At this moment, that family is probably moving into another home somewhere, but surely God is aware of them and loves them just as much as he loves me.  Seeing myself within this picture of other divine children both on the covenant path and off it, helps me to understand my own place in this world and what he would have me do. I’m not the woman I wish I were, but perhaps I am who he needs me to be.

That is where grace comes in.  I am not the woman I wish I were.  Still, the Savior died for me. He loves me that much, so I can give myself a little grace.  I can look into my dark places and give myself some forgiveness that I fall short. I can restrain the inner critic and unleash the inner nurturer and allow myself to be; to exist without judgement.  There is no greater gift one person can give another; suspended judgement.  

When something imperfect is allowed to exist, it reminds me of the plan of salvation and the wisdom of my God.  He created this world, an anomaly within the cosmos, a temporal vaccuume in the fabric of eternity, a place where justice and perfection are suspended and sin and death are allowed to exist.  This place, the training and testing place of the spirit sons and daughters of God, is a crucible of pain and growth. One of the hardest things to learn in life is to do as God has done. To suspend judgement.  To allow our fellow men to make their choices and love them regardless of what those choices are and how they affect us is to approach the throne of God himself. That is what he has done. He suspends his judgment until the end.  He has given us the hope of salvation through the sacrifice of his son. And he waits. He waits for us to find ourselves and one another in the mess that is this world. He waits for us to feel after him and remember ourselves; not the shallow images of our vain imaginations, but the God that lives within us.  He waits. He waits for me.

The Miserable

I haven’t posted in a long time and there are several reasons for that.  I have been helping a friend who is going through a really hard time and although I have had a lot to think about and write about, I haven’t been sure how to do it while still keeping confidences.  I’ve thought about writing a parable or something, but everything is still so raw and sensitive that there really is no way to express how I feel even on a private blog without revealing something.

So I just pray that I can write something that will do no harm, but might help someone even if that someone is only myself.  The biggest take away that I have had from the last three weeks is that there is real suffering in this world and that there are some people who, through no fault of their own, become victimized again and again.  These people have tremendous potential for good, but often cannot see it in themselves because society writes a script for them and they believe that they cannot break out of that script to write their own story.

Les Miserables is my all time favorite book.  I’ve read it several times, the last time I read the unabridged version in which I learned more than I ever wanted to about the streets of Paris and Napoleon and French politics. Most of it I have forgotten.  The most memorable parts of the book for me have been the characters. Who can forget Fantine? She was lovely, she was good, she was so devoted to her child that she sold her teeth and hair to pay for her fictitious medical bills.  Her daughter Cosette was destined to follow in her footsteps; a waif, enslaved by the monstrous Thénardiers, robbed, deprived, and abused in every way.  But when great evil exists in the world, the hand of God is also revealed.

Consider the Bishop Myriel.  He was the embodiment of the Savior, fearless, compassionate, and wise.  When Jean Valjean, the despised convict, brings his vitriol and bile into the Bishop’s home, steals his silver candlesticks, the only things of value in his sparse abode, and flees as a literal thief in the night, the reader expects that the Bishop will allow him to be punished to the full extent of the law as he is caught and dragged back in chains to be identified.  Instead, the wise Bishop sees something in Jean Valjean. He sees the man beneath the pain, beneath the course exterior, behind the crimes he has committed. He sees Jean Valjean as the Savior would have seen him, with the eye of hope; the vision of the possibility that Jean Valjean could change. He could live a life different than the one society had carved out for him.  He acted on that faith, sent the law enforcement officers away, insisting that the candlesticks had been a gift. When the threat of the officers is gone, he tells Jean Valjean that the candlesticks are a gift to him, a ransom in the similitude of the Savior’s atonement, and that he should use them to make a new life for himself.

Then Jean Valjean continues his life of crime.  He even steals from a child, terrorizing him before taking a coin from him.  He sees the yellow paper he is required by law to carry that marks him as a convict and forces him into the role he has been told he is to play on life’s stage; a vagabond, a thief, a vagrant.  Then he thinks of the Bishop and the candlesticks and the possibility that he could carve a different path for himself. Could he, Jean Valjean be redeemed? Could he have a new life as the Bishop told him he could.  He kneels down moments after the child he stole from flees in terror and he weeps at the man he has become; a man he despises. He feels the bitterness, the anger, and the pain melt away in the sunlight of the Bishop’s faith.  He throws the yellow paper aside and begins his new life, with a new name, and a new vision for the man he wants to be.  

If you aren’t familiar with the story, I highly recommend that you read it or watch the many dramatic reenactments that have sprung up in its wake over the decades.  The remarkable life of Jean Valjean as he battles against the social construct of his time, symbolized in the fascinating character of Javier, to live his life of service and moral principle is as inspiring as it is entertaining.  Jean Valjean tries to save Fantine, but tragic circumstances result in her death. He is determined to rescue her child Cosette. The child becomes his life, his one and only love, his whole world. He saves her from a fate destined to follow the tragic footsteps of her mother, and gives her a charmed life instead.  She is given an education, fine clothes to wear, the love and protection of a devoted father. Instead of victimization and slavery, Fantine’s daughter is married into a wealthy Bourgeoise family where her every need is met. Victor Hugo’s descriptions of Cosette’s happiness are heavenly and they are made possible solely by the incredible sacrifices of Jean Valjean.

In this world of sadness, heartache, abuse, and pain; there is also righteousness, redemption, and noble sacrifice.  Jean Valjean would not have become the man he became without Javier, the Thenardiers, the galley slave ships, the yellow convict papers.  The evils within the fallen society of France, which could be any place on this Earth, forged Jean Valjean into the man who was able to save Cosette.

I’ve often thought of the name of the book, Les Miserables— the miserable.  Truly, it is a story of misery.  War, unjust punishments, slave galleys, prostitution, rape, poverty, the slaughter of student protesters in the streets, greed, exploitation of children; there are so many ways in which we humans can create hell on Earth and many of them are explored in depth in this book.  And yet, in Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean and Fantine and Eponine, we see that redemption is possible through love and compassion for our fellow travelers on this road of misery that is life. The Bishop inspired Jean Valjean who comforted Fantine. Fantine inspired Valjean who then rescued Cosette.  Cosette inspired Valjean to save Marius. In the end Valjean even cracked Javier, his ultimate nemesis. Javier is the symbol of justice in the story, the personification of fallen human construct, self-righteous and void of compassion. He is at last overcome by Valjean’s character which can no longer be denied or explained away.  Like the Savior, Valjean’s love and valor were not of this world and this world cannot rule it or understand it. Just as the Savior broke the bands of death and walked from the tomb, Valjean broke Javier; shattered his stereotypes, his cynicism, and his calloused assumptions about the potential of the fallen human soul.

So next time you see great evil; the next mass shooting, the next victim of abuse, the next road rage incident, the next murder– don’t forget, great evil can inspire great love and courage.  There is compassion, service, and sacrifice. There is a choice that each of us has; the same choice that Jean Valjean had that day as he knelt in the field. We can walk the path that society dictates; the slut, the abuse victim, the convict, the addict, the helpless spectator, the greedy user, the coward who casts blame and expects others to solve problems.  We can walk that path, or we can choose something different. We can cast away that yellow paper no matter what the consequences our fellow men threaten. We can forge our own lives, make our own path, and counter the evils of our time through repentance and the grace of Him who is Mighty to Save!

Perhaps you think there is nothing you can do. Perhaps you believe that you are powerless against the tide of wickedness that is permeating our society.  Perhaps you feel you are meant to wait on the Lord who will come rescue us from our peril. I have felt that way too, but something tells me he expects more from us.  He sees in us what the Bishop saw in Jean Valjean; a man who can inspire, uplift, and strengthen others; a man capable not of waiting for the Savior to rescue him, but of being the Savior’s hands to rescue others.  I picture the Bishop extending his candlesticks to me. “Take these and make of yourself a righteous woman, a handmaid of the Lord.” What potential would he see in me? What could I do with the opportunities that I have around me?  

I have had the tremendous privilege to serve some of “the miserable” in the past months.  It has given me powerful insight into the way the Savior views each one of his children. Each and every person is of eternal value.  It is natural to harbor fear which cripples faith and paralyses righteous action. Those who suffer are often sensitive, easily offended, and difficult to foster a relationship of trust with.  Sometimes they may even victimize us as Valjean did to the Bishop. (Fortunately, those I have helped have done no such thing.) When I fill my heart with the sure knowledge that each and every one of God’s children is of eternal value and that his grace is sufficient for them, my fear is purged away.  When I follow his promptings and strive to see His children as He does, I know that my efforts will be enough.

Praise be the name of my Master!  Glory be to the Son! In Him I find my strength.  In Him my weakness is swallowed up. In Him I find meaning and purpose in my life.  Blessed be His name!

Jean Valjean rescues Fantine.

A Light in Darkness; MCO in NYC

There have been so many thoughts swirling around my brain for the last week I hardly know where to begin.  Yesterday, I flew back to Dallas after spending three days in New York City. I could write for pages and pages about these experiences, but I really don’t want to make it a travel log.  My Lord wants me to write about Carnegie Hall and my choir, the Millennial Choirs and Orchestras.

This is Brett Stewart conducting the choir and orchestra.

I have written about our director and co-founder, Brett Stewart and how last spring I wrote him a thank you letter.  Well, he was there at Carnegie Hall along with almost all of my friends from the Dallas choir. It was so fun to see them again, even for just a short time.  As we packed ourselves onstage like sardines, I thought of how incredible this organization is. Our Friday concert was almost entirely composed of musicians from Idaho and Texas who had traveled to New York, arranged transportation and housing, and taken time out of their busy summer schedule to be here……and there were almost a thousand of us.  That represents incredible sacrifice and dedication! Part of it was due to the once in a lifetime opportunity to sing in Carnegie Hall, but it was also due to the understanding that we have something in MCO that is worth putting onstage in Carnegie Hall, and that we all have to give of ourselves to make it happen.

This is the Alto 2 section. I’m on the second row, second from the right.

So we put up with the heat, the crowded hallways, the lack of water, the standing for hours, the strain of singing and playing at the level MCO demands of us, and we did it.  We performed to a full house in Carnegie Hall. It was the most polished, professional, inspiring concert I have ever sung in. The soloist, Erin Morley, was world class, the violinist, Jenny Oaks Baker, was on fire.  One of the incredible things I saw was in the violin section. There is a fabulous violinist that has been performing with Dallas for six years. She usually gets the solos and she leads the orchestra in tuning and stuff.  I’m not an instrumentalist so I don’t know what she her title is, but she is incredibly talented. I saw that she had moved her chair over to the right to make room for the woman who took her place in the combined orchestra.  If it bothered her to be demoted, it didn’t show. Then that woman, who I had not seen before, but I assume was even more accomplished than the first, watched Jenny Oaks Baker take the stage to perform the solo pieces. Likewise, the soprano soloists that had performed in our Dallas and Idaho concerts gave up their solos for Erin Morley.    

Music and art can reek of ego and stuffiness.  Even the venues we perform at can be so stiflingly rigid with tradition and dogma.  There are so many rules and so much pressure when we bring a thousand people into a place like that.  In addition, many of them are children. The logistics are incredibly complex! The need for people to set aside their own desire for fame and special privileges is absolute in such a setting.  As we were able to do that, we had an incredible performance…..together. Working together. Sacrificing together. Maybe singing in MCO is the closest I’ll ever get to being on a sports team. If MCO is a sports team, we took the championship Friday night!

This is the full grand chorus, orchestra, and young singers chorus on stage in Carnegie. The other children were in box seating in the balcony or standing in the aisles. Joni Jensen is conducting.

So Saturday came and I vaguely wanted to go to Arizona’s concert in the afternoon, or the California/Utah concert Saturday night, but that would involve a lot of work to secure a ticket, and I would be going by myself.  I finally decided I would rather just hang out with the Eldreges, who had taken me in as an extra family member while I was in New York. As the sun went behind the buildings, I felt pretty drowsy. We walked into the lobby of our hotel, the Wellington, and we heard a “Pop!”  The lights went out. We learned that the entire block had lost power. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal to me. I figured the lights would come back on in an hour or so. We walked up the stairs to our room and I took a nap.

It wasn’t until later that I heard about the full importance of what happened that night.  First, it wasn’t just our city block that lost power. It was a major power outage that impacted all of Manhattan.  The subways were down, the street lights were out, half of Times Square was in darkness, Broadway shows were cancelled, people were shut out of their high rise apartments and hotels, and the streets were flooded with people.  Most significant to me, they had evacuated the California/Utah casts from Carnegie Hall and the choir had started singing in the street. I was told about the singing, but I was too drowsy to realize the significance of what was happening below me.  I could hear the beautiful sound of MCO singing from the street, but I fell back asleep.  

Over the last couple of days, the full significance of Saturday night has come to light.  Saturday night was the 42nd anniversary of the last major blackout in New York City. It was also, “Manhattanhenge” which meant that the sun would shine through the buildings, bathing the city in golden light.  This only happens four times a year. The impromptu street concert was performed at 8:30, just as the sun was setting, casting this golden glow onto the performers. People were streaming out of the dark subway tunnel and onto this scene. 

Keep in mind that these singers had traveled across the country at their family’s expense to sing in Carnegie Hall. They learned that their concert had been cancelled. Imagine their grief! Imagine their pain! And yet, they sang. And New York listened.  And then Twitter listened. And then Facebook listened. And YouTube. And before long, news programs were showing footage of the street concert. A video of the choir singing Mack Wilburg’s “I Believe in Christ” went viral accumulating millions of views.

My heart has broken for the cast members that had their Carnegie dream dashed, especially since I got mine on Friday night.  Some of them are still in shock and grieving that the trip they had been planning and looking forward to for a year was disrupted so badly.  Still, I see the hand of God in Saturday night. Their grief and their sacrifice was a part of the scene. It gave their music resonance and meaning.  Like the light that shown through the buildings, their music shown brighter through their grief; giving it a precious glow that would be absent otherwise.  There is no replacing the Carnegie singing experience. The involuntary sacrifice of the concert can and should be grieved. The street concert and the aftermath does not make up for the loss and those who are still sad should be allowed to feel their sadness as long as they need to.  Still, I marvel at the design of a wise and merciful God who takes the sadness, destruction, and disappointment in this world and turns it to good. He reaches out to his children wherever they are and touches them with beauty in unexpected places and ways. Like the sun during Manhattanhenge, it makes its way to them through the obstacles.

The light of our Savior, Jesus Christ, shines to a world in need.  None are outside of his love no matter their choices or life experiences.  He loves us! He reaches out to us in the darkness of our subway platforms when man’s genius fails and leaves us without a path.  He is there for us. He will find a way to bless us and bring his light to us when our lights are not enough.

God bless MCO and the singers from the California and Utah choirs for being his instrument in New York on Saturday!  I salute you and grieve with you. As the trials of life descend upon us individually and collectively, we can stand together, sing together, grieve together, and bring the whole world to the feet of Him who is Mighty to Save, even Jesus Christ.  Amen!!!

Our conductors were prompted to put this Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saint hymn, “I Believe in Christ” in our Carnegie Concert. Video of this song went viral.