Sunday, October 04, 2009

Building a Home

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Lately, themes of home--as a project, a problem, a possibility--have been echoing around my head. But considering my own pre-occupations, perhaps that's not surprising.

Last Wednesday, our sewer line began to back up, spreading crappy (literally) water all over the basement. A neighbor, a fellow church-member and a very generous friend, spent a good chunk of his evening figuring out that it was an electrical problem, and getting the pump motor working again, thus restoring our sometimes doubtful belief that owning your own home is worth it. Then on Thursday I had dinner with a long-time community activist, and we talked a little about the politics of health care and immigration in Wichita, mostly we chatted about our kids, about how hard it is when you move around a lot and you don't have a stable network of relatives or friends or teachers to help you out, and how valuable it is to finally be able to develop local ties with your children's classmates and their parents. Then on Friday it was homecoming for Northwest High (which is just up the road from our house), and Megan, our oldest daughter, who plays the clarinet in the band for Wilbur Middle School (just across the run-off and down the street), got to march and play along with crowd. It was a gorgeous fall evening, and we sat in the bleachers under a rising full moon, as our two middle girls, Caitlyn and Alison, ran about to sit beside and talk with their friends and parents of their friends and teachers from Peterson Elementary (yep, that's in walking distance too) who were in the crowd along with us. Then finally yesterday, in honor of Chusoknal, the Korean Thanksgiving, Melissa and I got out to a Manna Wok, a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant on the east side of town, where we ate some of the best Korean food I've had in years. The owners have been in Wichita for twenty-six years, and the restaurant, despite development all around them, had hung on for sixteen; every inch of the walls were covered with snapshots of regular diners, some of whom have apparently been coming back again and again for a decade or more.

All this, and it's General Conference weekend for us Mormons. The same weekend as Sukkot, the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles, as observant Jews are building their sukkah in their homes as part of their worship services, Mormons worldwide are--assuming they're equally observant--traveling to church buildings with satellite projectors, or crashing the homes of friends with cable television, or firing up their laptops, all tuning in to hear words of counsel from church essence turning our ears towards our spiritual home.

A few years back, I wrote a blog post on Sukkot, in particular on its connection to notions of harvest, and finding security for oneself and one's family after a season of labor and trial. While there is nothing directly related to Sukkot which makes an appearance in any form of Mormon belief and practice I'm aware of, that's probably not for lack of desire. We Mormons have long had both an ambivalent and a longing relationship to the Jewish faith, with elements of its language and perspective--such as that which relates to ideas like "Zion" and "covenant"--popping up unexpectedly (and often unknowingly) in the lives of Mormons everywhere. In that post, though, I was kind of morose about the whole thing, expressing real doubt that Christians, even (or especially?) Mormon Christians, could ever properly, doctrinally, feel themselves as home in the world. Part of that, surely, was the frustrating search we were going through for a home of our own at the time, a frustration intensified by the fact that it was finally truly possible for us to buy a house, thus making every obstacle and set-back seem massive. But part of it, also, is the fact that at this time of year, when our faith's semi-annual conference weekend rolls around, the degree to which ours is a church that has--in admittedly not all, but nonetheless in many key ways--aligned itself very much with modernity and the electronic, global media is basically unavoidable. Modern Mormonism has relatively little liturgy or ritual to tie its faithful into doing specific things in specific places at specific times--to a feeling of groundedness, physicality, and being at home--and that's a loss, I think.

Rosalynde Welch, who is about as smart and careful a writer on Mormon matters as anyone I know, is a little more positive than I. In a column of hers which appeared today, she argues:

General Conference is the closest we [Mormons] get to a liturgical feast, a high point in our spiritual landscape and a time of renewal and rededication. It’s characteristically Mormon--and I say this with the greatest possible affection--that a pinnacle of our spiritual lives has such a prosaic name. But General Conference, arriving as it does together with the natural beauty of every autumn and spring, is indeed a beloved event for many Mormons....To some, the prospect of listening to a speech streamed online might not seem particularly transcendent. But for Mormons, the communication of shared spiritual knowledge is a form of worship; the experience of knowing together is a central part of our religious practice. And watching General Conference online provides an opportunity for members near and far to reconfirm that knowledge as one.

This bothers me, but not because I disagree with it, because mostly I don't. I wouldn't defend it as the most truthful description of modern American Mormon life possible, and I would dissent on theological grounds from calling "the communication of shared spiritual knowledge" a style of worshiping, but I can't dispute its basically accurate account of how your typical American Mormon congregation (and many if not most Mormon congregations around the planet as well) likely responds to the call of conference. We are a faith that, these days anyway, has mostly packaged away the charismatic and visionary, instead discerning spiritual power in propositions and testimonies--which, of course, lend themselves to speeches, heard words that can be received in a spirit of confirmation: I know what I'm hearing is true; in this moment of hearing, I am feeling my place, I am taking my stand. And to the extent that such can be done in a crowd, then perhaps it really is a tool of building community, of building a home. Moreover, in the broad historical sweep of things, perhaps this move towards a kind of internal (yet shared?) dialogue of confirmation and witnessing is the safest way of cultivating individual dedication without risking schism: of balancing authority and individuality. I'm glad I don't have to make such decisions myself (though to be honest I doubt many of those who do have that heavy responsibility often think about such things anyway). For myself, I prefer to develop a belief that draws such strength as it has from religious services and practices tied up with sacrament and service, performances that are either strictly liturgical or dependent entirely upon the idiosyncratic needs and lives of the parishioners amongst whom I live. Generally, these don't conflict by my snarky desire to complain about the way many of my fellow believers will point with pride to a correlated system of instruction which will guarantee most visitors to most Mormon congregations on any given Sunday worldwide of hearing pretty much the same lessons being taught, as if that's some sort of fabulous achievement (McDonald's does the same thing, millions of times a day, and not just on Sunday), thus saving me from unnecessary crises of faith. I can generate enough of those on my own, thanks very much.

Before I get too snarky, though, I have to share Rosalynde's concluding point:

Of course, worship always involves more than an act of communication; it is also a sensory and social experience that video can never fully replicate. So streaming video will never replace the experience of worshiping together during the rest of the year. No matter how capacious the broadband connection, it cannot transmit the warmth of a handshake, the space of a chapel, the taste of the sacramental bread and water. Those human-to-human connections will always be at the heart of Mormon religious practice--and of virtually all other cooperative religious endeavors, as well.

Which makes the same point I kind of snuck around to above, much more honestly. "The space of a chapel"--I like that. What is the desire to have a home, a hut, a land, of one's own, after all, than the desire to have some space that will be filled with others, others with whom you can share something you love and want to share...knowing, somehow, that in sharing it (with children, with friends, with fellow citizens and saints) you'll receive more and better as they all receive your gifts and include you in their giving the same? The children of Israel suffered and wandered and, when they found a homeland, had to fight for it and then struggle to make it fruitful and fully their own. Building a sukkah--a transitory, limited dwelling, just as everything we have, even our bountiful harvests and good meals and fine evenings are also temporary--is a way the Jewish people have of ritually acting out a sense of belonging and gratitude, one tied to a physical space, a home made by one's own hands. To my great pleasure and surprise, I look around at neighbors and colleagues and Wichitans far and near, and I find that we've managed to make a bit of a sukkah for ourselves as well. A slightly more permanent one, to be sure (despite that sewer problem), but essentially just that: a place to retreat to, a home to turn to, as the seasons turn.

As a Mormon, General Conference, and the words of men and women I consider to be inspired, is part of that seasonal turning. Listening to a kind, elderly man speak wise and loving words over a satellite broadcast in a dark and mostly empty chapel this morning probably can't on its own provide much sense of shelter or liturgical place--but as Rosalynde pointed out, it is, thankfully, only one part of the spiritual homes we build for ourselves. So long as we still have more human homes and places to be, with elementary schools and homecoming parades and friends knowledgeable in the ways of home construction and congregations of real people, such acts of mediated communication, for people of my particular faith, can only make the sukkah that much stronger, however long it lasts.

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