Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Musings 2010...

I remember as a kid in the late 70s, back during the Iran hostage crisis, that around Christmas time, some of the hostages were permitted a few minutes of time on a live television broadcast to send messages to their loved ones.  I distinctly remember one bedraggled-looking middle-aged woman in a red sweater asking her family to sing with her...she cleared her throat, and she began to sing, in a quivering voice, the third verse from Away in a Manger:

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me I pray
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care
And fit us for Heaven to live with thee there.

It was the first time I recall being truly moved by the words of a song like that, and sensing the pain behind that poignant choice of a song.  To this day, I always think of that woman, reaching out for a sense of hope in a hopeless situation, whenever I hear "Away in a Manger."  Christmas simply isn't supposed to be that kind of time.  It's supposed to be happy, joyful, carefree.

And for the most part, up until that time of my life, it always had been.  I loved Christmas.  The buzz and excitement leading up to the Big Day, the special treats, cookies, Mom's Russian tea cakes, and holiday parties, the lights we'd string up in front of the house, the smell of the Christmas tree (I remember begging to sleep under the tree shortly after putting it up, because I loved lying under it and looking up at all the lights, enveloped in the aroma of the pine needles, and watching the way the the lights cast overlapping shadows of the branches on the wall).  The holiday music we'd pull off the shelves (mostly vinyl LPs!) And of course, the nearly uncontainable giddiness, coming down the stairs Christmas morning, with a bunch of new packages having magically appeared while I slept.  (Even long after I knew the truth about Santa, I always wanted to go to bed before the gifts were arranged, so I could still have that experience.)

Then, while watching this woman on TV, I was confronted with the knowledge that some people in Iran were having a perfectly awful holiday.  Granted, I was old enough by then to know that bad things happened in the world, and that people suffered, even on Christmas.  But it was really my first experience of being impressed by it.  Of feeling empathy for what must have seemed like a hopeless situation.  Their suffering went far beyond the minor disappointments I was familiar with.

This is my 44th Christmas, and by and large, most of them have been good ones.  I've certainly never been stuck in a Middle Eastern hostage situation, in any event.  And I don't consider myself a humbug, I still love the "fluff" that surrounds Christmas...the lights and the sights and the music and goodies and festivities.  Even so, part of me misses that kind of wide-eyed wonder with which I approached Christmas throughout my first decade. 

But even more so, I'm grateful for a growing understanding of what Christmas really is all about.  And I don't mean that kind of requisite "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" stuff we may feel obliged to toss in there occasionally, to convince ourselves that we aren't losing the Baby Jesus amid the bows, ribbons, powdered sugar, and credit card receipts.  No, I mean really coming to grips with the absolute awe and wonder of what those olive wood and ceramic nativity scenes scattered around the house actually represent--the God of the Universe stepping into a world held hostage, not just by political powers but by our fallen selves, with all our sin, our sickness, our abject brokenness.

This Christmas has been a much...well...different one for my family.  Dealing with Mom's health crisis and its aftermath...and together with it, the growing realization that we are broken, that we are subject to suffering, and our mortal bodies are hopelessly bound to the decaying world on which we live.  While we've been blessed to enjoy some of the "fluff" that attaches itself to Christmas this year, the events of the past couple of months have put a damper on the festivities that we're used to.  It's all the more reason to sing that child-like prayer from Away in a Manger, and so like that poor hostage, I invite you to sing it with me:

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me I pray
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care
And fit us for Heaven to live with thee there.

So whether our Christmas has been that ideal Christmas where we got to spend it with happy, healthy families, with lots of good food and friends and an abundance under the tree...or whether it's been a hard time, a lonely time, where we are where we don't want to be, living through what we don't want to experience...Jesus invites us to be in His tender care, as he fits us to live with Him eternally.  Everything else should pale in significance compared to that marvelous hope we have.

So it's okay...enjoy the fun, shed the tears, experience the season, whether by its joy or its sorrow.  But let us not forget that the story isn't over yet. This year, for me, anyway, those are very glad tidings indeed.

Gloria in excelsis Deo. 

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

March Madness and April Activities

It's an early Wednesday morning, and I can't believe how quiet my townhouse is. I can actually hear a clock ticking. It's an odd and a somewhat (ironically) disquieting sensation, and will take some getting used to, considering how life the past month or so hasn't exactly been life as usual.

I hardly know where to begin, let alone, do it justice. So I guess I won't even try. But in order to at least play catch-up with out completely boring you (I hope), I'll give a quick rundown of why last night is the first time in a month that I slept in my own bed. And maybe why it's been nearly two months since a legitimate update has been posted.

In mid-March, I traveled to southern Utah with Doris Hanson (A Shield and Refuge Ministry) to participate in an outreach to the Mormon Fundamentalists in Colorado city, Arizona. We were there a couple days. It was a great experience; about 20 or 30 of us handed out door hangers inviting the residents to a barbecue we were planning in the park. The distribution went off without a hitch, and we had our barbecue picnic reasonably unmolested. It wasn't well-attended (we didn't expect it to be) but it was a start, and we did have a chance to have some meaningful discussions with a few people, mostly disenfranchised youth (potential "lost boys") who did dare to show up. A worship team also came and played worship songs. It was exciting--and moving--to hear this music played for what must have been the first time amid these polygamist strongholds. We kept saying to ourselves, "We couldn't have imagined this ever happening even two years ago."

As I was returning from southern Utah, my folks were driving down from Washington, and in fact, beat me to my home. As a birthday present, they had included me in a tour they were taking, a week in the Grand Canyon area on a tour arranged by Exploritas--which was an awesome time. So the next day, I made the trip BACK to southern Utah and into Arizona, this time with my parents. We spent almost a week exploring the Grand Canyon West and the Hualapai Indian reservation; checked out the historical Route 66; took a helicopter into the Canyon and a raft out of it; learned all about the real cowboys and Indians of Arizona; all in all a great time and a fascinating look at life in this remarkable, beautiful, desolate part of the country.

Upon return to Brigham City, I had only a couple days to get ready for the next trip; my folks stayed on a couple days, and then left for Washington the same day I left for Florida, where I was for nearly two weeks. I flew to Miami and spent a few days (Easter weekend) with my friends the Stedmans, and had a great time catching up with them (this will now be the third spring in a row I've gone back to Miami to visit.)

The original impetus behind this visit, however, was more related to the media ministry that God seems to be placing in our path. After the weekend, I rented a car and headed off to Winter Garden, Florida (Orlando area) for the following week, with a new video camera and equipment to gather some 25 hours' worth of interview and "b-roll" footage of the members of "Adam's Road," a musical group of young men who until just a few years ago were Mormons, and most had been Mormon missionaries.

You may recall that I had shared about some informal interviews with them on our website,, but these interviews were gathered without proper equipment, and since the end goal is a DVD that we hope to make available as a new ministry tool, we figured it was time to improve upon our earlier "quickie" interviews and hopefully do it right.

I was very warmly received by the band members and their families; they own and operate (and live in) a historic B&B-style inn called the Edgewater Hotel in downtown Winter Garden (highly recommended if you are ever in the Orlando area), and so my accommodations and meals were generously taken care of. Great time, great people, I had a blast, but was pretty wiped out when it was done. I returned to Miami at the end of the week and spent a few more days with my friends there, and it was a fine break...hanging out, catching up, playing with the kids, catching up with other friends from my days in Miami, watching movies into late at night, before flying back home yesterday, to get back to work.

There. That is the past month in a nutshell. I may "unpack" some of these things a bit more in the weeks to come, but I realized how long it has been since I posted anything, and just wanted to get something up!

As I look at the weeks and months ahead, I realize it's going to involve a lot of long days and long nights. Compiling and editing a video project like this has a way of absorbing your entire life; breaks are hard to take, not only when you're "on a roll" but also when you're absorbed in the tedium of capturing, logging, transcribing, and all the other fun stuff that comes with putting one of these things together.

I've been on a hiatus for nearly two years from any "serious" video production, and it's good to be back in the saddle...but a little intimidating, as well. I'm doing it under an entirely new reality, or so it seems. But I suppose the true Reality has never changed--God provides, God leads, and God enables. He's been faithful beyond compare! So even though I sometimes feel a bit overwhelmed by the tasks ahead, I keep returning to that truth that it's His work, from start to finish, not mine. For which I am very grateful.

I certainly hope to hold to more consistent blog-posting practices in the future. I know I've said that before, and will probably say it again. But I make no promises. I'll post when I have something to share...maybe tomorrow, maybe in a week, maybe in a month. But thanks for your patience just the same!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Sacred Groves: Encounters with the Living Jesus

Over the past year or so, I have been a little squeamish about climbing back into the saddle of video production. Video production had figured heavily in my life before the departure of the video ministry in fact, my identity had been perhaps too wrapped up in it. So I think it was important, even restorative, to separate myself from any serious forays into video production for a while, to seek God's will, ask some basic questions, and to allow Him to rebuild things on a new foundation. Looking back, it was a hugely necessary step for me to break cleanly with "the old," which has enabled me to discover new ways of doing things.

But even when I became confident that God was calling me back into video production, I still kind of felt the producer's version of "writer's block." A few weeks ago I was sitting at a table in the back of the sanctuary with Jim, the pastor, kind of musing about the lack of progress I was feeling. I remember cradling my steaming gourd of yerba mate in my hands against the the chill of the room, staring down at the green and brown flecks that floated in the water.

"We really need a name for this project," I lamented. "Maybe that would give me some momentum." It occurred to me that we were not to leave the table until we'd come up with a name...the name. It's not that we hadn't talked about names before. We had batted around ideas, but most of them were lackluster at best, and none of them ever gained any traction. It was kind of frustrating.

The basic vision was in place well enough. It was to create a sort of a "clearing house" of video testimonies of people who have gotten free of Mormonism and encountered Jesus. It would include less formal online videos on a website, as well as more formal, finished products in a DVD format. Past experience had shown that web and DVD were a good combination to reach a broad audience. But we lacked the idea or the concept that would sort of link it all together and help us move forward.

Something that had begun to dawn on me in my interactions with the Mormons who contacted us, is that Mormons, despite appearances, are hardly a homogenous group of people. There are many "camps" of Mormons that we would come into contact with. One camp consists of those who are strong believers and defenders of the truthfulness of the Church. Another camp are those who, deep down, really couldn't care less about the truth of it, but they value the social and moral aspect, and the comfort of the structure and order it imposes upon their lives and communities.

And still another camp are those Mormons who find themselves hungering and thirsting for Jesus, and are frustrated that they can't seem to "get Him" in the context of their church. They often live lives of quiet desperation, thinking that their church is supposedly the only way to God...yet a genuine, life-giving encounter with Him seems no where to be found.

So sometimes these seekers begin to timidly dip their toes into the vast, scary Internet ocean to look for answers--often with a great deal of fear and trembling, because they've been taught that looking at so-called "anti-Mormon" material can literally lead them to eternity in outer darkness.

And they find these websites--many of them quite excellent--that are treasure troves of information, on Mormon history and doctrine and apologetics and biblical comparisons. For them it's often like opening a fire hydrant when all they're looking for is a drinking fountain. But in the end, some will muster up the courage and try to navigate those "dangerous" websites, because they really do want answers to their hard questions.

Don't get me wrong here. I respect and value many of the websites that are heavy on the flaws of Mormonism, so long as they are done with the intent of pointing to truth in Jesus. I've spent several years developing websites like that! And they definitely serve their purposes. They have been instrumental in leading many, many Mormons to true faith in Jesus. But God has been placing upon me a burden for a rather select group of Mormons--those Mormons who are looking first for Jesus, and don't have a clue where to begin, and are easily overwhelmed by all the information that's out there--and are terrified of where it might lead.

The honest seeker's most fearful question is, "Is there hope for me if I start walking down this path?" The LDS Church leaders tell them "No way." They tell them that this path leads to darkness and despair, and ultimately to apostasy and eternal damnation. (This is no exaggeration; a lady I know of was recently told, by official "prophetic" priesthood declaration, that she was a "handmaiden of Satan" simply for attending a Bible study at our church.)

My vision is to provide these seekers with a much different answer. I want them to find a well-marked "trailhead" for that path, scary as it might seem. A place where they can take their first steps, while being assured and encouraged that yes, there is hope...abundant life...on the other side. If they dare to embrace that hope, then it gives them the courage to walk that path, and as they do so, they can begin to unpack the awkward, crippling baggage of Mormonism and become truly free in Jesus Christ.

I've become convinced that the best method of communicating that hope is to introduce them to people who have walked that very path, and know the way, understand the fears and the pitfalls, and have discovered that hope for themselves. In short, it's the power of testimony.

The concept of "testimony" is highly significant in the Mormon culture. Children are taught from the time they can speak that they must "get their testimony," that is, attain this inner assurance, and verbally proclaim, that the Mormon Church is true. So testimony in and of itself carries a certain weight in the Mormon mindset.

Anyway, back to the project name that we were wrestling over. Like I said, we were kind of sitting at the table, mulling over some of the old ideas we'd batted around, and throwing out some new ones that were equally dull. We finally got out a sheet of paper and just started brainstorming. But not two minutes into that process, the phrase "sacred groves" popped up. And almost immediately, we both said: that's it! It seemed to just appear out of no where; it didn't even seem like our idea.

The "Sacred Grove" is another very compelling and pervasive image in the mind of most Mormons. It was the place, according to the official account, where Joseph Smith received his first revelations about who God is and what he was supposed to do. He had been disenfranchised with traditional Christianity, and so this was the place he "learned" that all of traditional Christianity had gone astray and was corrupt, and needed to be restored.

Now, most critical historians will discount Smith's account of the vision in the grove as a piece of fictitious, religious charlatanism, and personally I tend to agree with their assessment; but even so, we decided that the metaphor of the "sacred grove" was powerful enough to warrant further exploration.

And so for us, a "sacred grove" is an experience where a person who has honest, legitimate questions begins to search for answers outside of the religious box that he or she has been living in. And we believe...we know...that Jesus meets people in those sacred groves. We've seen it happen. If we do nothing more than point the way to a place where they can meet Jesus face to face, then we've done our job.

And so the way we believe God is directing us to do this is the creation of a website,, where this can happen, and where seeking Mormons can see stories of people who have gone before them, and ask questions without fear, and most of all, find hope in Jesus Christ.

So...if you're interested, I invite you to check it out, and see what I've been doing over this past month or so. And by all means, I would love to get any feedback; it's a work in progress, and I really don't want this to be "my" project alone.

You know, my last blog entry kind of explored the groves of trees that I've fallen in love with on the Oregon Coast. I find that kind of interesting. Perhaps it wasn't happenstance. Because the metaphor of the "sacred grove," when we first discussed it, was fresh on the heels of my pining (no pun intended) for those wooded glens I'd just come from. (In fact, one of the pictures that I took on that trip has featured pretty heavily in the website as I've been working on it.) So...I chalk that up to God working behind the scenes, creating and arranging things in ways we don't see until later. I really enjoy discovering that!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Promises To Keep

Yes, I do realize that it's been a while since I posted anything. I've been told that it's a cardinal rule to NEVER apologize for posting delays. I'm not entirely sure why that is, though. Perhaps it's to avoid the presumption that people really care whether you post or not!

Now, if you've been reading this blog out of some misguided sense of obligation, you're probably grateful for my lackluster commitment to blogging as of late.

But if you've actually been reading this blog because you actually want to hear from me, well, all I can say is, well, it's a Brand New Year! I make no resolutions or promises, but I haven't given up just yet.

Anyway, maybe we'll start with just a little bit of catch-up. The first half of December I spent in extremely cold and snowy Utah, and it was filled with all the regular pre-holiday fun gatherings and lunches and dinners and vicious card games and the occasional holiday-themed movie. (This year it was "A Christmas Carol" with Jim Carey, a great movie, and which for reasons I'm not entirely sure of, I got to see for free.) Oh, yeah, and we got some work done, as well.

I was about to categorize my work these days in about three main areas, but I'm finding that kind of difficult. Once I approach a dozen "main areas" then I suppose it can't rightly be called a category and it's just a hat I wear. But the main things that have taken up my time of late are the continued production of Polygamy: What Love Is This, as well as maintaining the streaming video website for that program and the other websites as well. I'm also embarking on a new video project, which has some raw material in the form of about 4 hours of compelling interviews with former Mormon missionaries (and who are now part of a Christian band known as "Adam's Road".) Those interviews, in their raw format, are viewable at

Another thing I've gotten to do more of lately is interact with seekers, both via phone and email. Some of them contact us through our church's website, and others through the Polygamy TV program. Since 2008, the church's overall web visibility had greatly diminished with the departure of the video ministry, so our active involvement in helping struggling seekers had all but disappeared. It was, in fact, one of the things I most mourned the loss of, so it's been gratifying to get opportunities to engage in that again. It's also very sobering, to be back in touch with some of the very deep hurts of people who are struggling with Mormonism.

The last half of December I spent in the Pacific Northwest, which was considerably warmer, and not much snow (not a bad thing in my book.) As is always the case when I'm home, there's never enough time to do all you want to do and see all those whom you want to see. A couple of days of unwinding before Christmas, and suddenly the holiday is upon us. And then right after Christmas, my parents and I headed for Netarts, an out-of-the-way little village on the Oregon Coast, where we spent a week overlooking an ocean that was alternately calm and stormy. On calm days we got out and took short hikes and walked on the beach; on stormy days we played dominoes and watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy and read by the fire. It was great.

I like to take drives along the windy roads through the rain forests that spread across the northern Oregon Coast. I keep passing by these dirt roads slinking off into the deep woods, and I have to resist the urge to stop and explore each one. (Most of them are private property!) But more than anything, I love walking the trails through those woods...dark, drippy, green winding paths through moss-covered hemlock and sitka spruce, carpets of green ferns, occasional spectacular ocean vistas of massive waves pounding on the rocky capes as far as the eye can see. That is my idea of heaven.

It always brings to mind a quatrain from an old Robert Frost poem, which I first encountered when one of my junior high English teachers, who had apparently been suckered into teaching English against his will, put it up on the classroom bulletin board just in time to make a good show for Parent's Night. If memory serves, I think he attributed it not to Frost but to some guy named Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Anyway, this English teacher wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. I of course had no idea of any of that at the time; to me it was just an intriguing bit of iambic pentameter that I never forgot, and that even at the tender age of 14, brought to mind my favorite hikes in Oregon:

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep
But I have promises to keep;
And miles to go before I sleep

And miles to go before I sleep.

Those lines still go through my mind as I soak in the views and smells and sensations of those forests. I find myself daydreaming about living in a cabin, stuck away at the end of one of those dirt roads that disappear into the lovely, dark and deep woods. (Preferably with an ocean view on the other end.) Then I find myself wondering, what would have to happen to make that dream a reality? Is there some way I could support myself enough to live in some quiet beach house tucked away in a shady glen? Some place I could read or write by a crackling fire, or sip a cup of Rwandan coffee while watching the breakers pound on the shore below? Is that dream feasible, short of winning the lottery? Is it worthwhile?

It's not a new dream. For as long as I can remember, my visits to Netarts are plagued with that ache of wishful thinking. A couple months ago I wrote about a concept called saudade, a Portuguese word meaning an undefined, unfulfilled longing. I become reacquainted with saudade with each visit to the Oregon Coast. I've done my fair share of traveling around the world and seen a lot of places I wouldn't mind living. But nothing has ever drawn me so constantly and repeatedly as this place.

For years, I think I was the only one who felt this way. Sadly, however, it's been "discovered" and now housing costs are reflecting that reality. Favorite old greasy spoons that served clam chowder and grilled cheeses sandwiches to customers sitting at a worn-out diner counter are now upscale restaurants aspiring to multiple Michelin stars. Empty, green hillsides overlooking lonely beaches have now become cluttered with million-dollar homes with huge picture windows.

But...there are still dungeness crab in the bay, and clams along the shoreline. The tide still scours the beach clean every 12 hours. The grey mist still gives Cape Lookout a mysterious, otherworldly apsect on a rainy day. There's still no place like it. My heart still skips a beat when we make that left turn onto Crab Avenue after the long drive from home, and behold Netarts Bay. And it still makes me sad every time I leave.

The ocean view may be lovely, the woods may be dark and deep. But for now, all I can do is pause briefly to enjoy what has to be God's favorite handiwork. Then I have to move on. I've got a job to do, promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.

Octopus Tree Trail, Cape Meares State Park.