Yearning for God, Trying to Love My Neighbor, Making Theatre and Beauty, Building a Life...

Monday, April 2, 2018

The Glory of God is Intelligence

Note: I delivered this talk in my local LDS Ward/Congregation in Ogden, Utah on February 17, 2018

There are a number of letters dated from the December to April of 1839, written from the holding cell of Liberty Jail. They were dictated by the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith as he and his fellow prisoners were confined to this dank little basement of a prison, held by the Missouri government after the sack and fall of the Mormon city of Far West.

These Mormon leaders had been betrayed by one of their own and handed over to the Missouri Militia that had sacked the city, raped its inhabitants, stolen their goods, and expelled a whole people into the harsh Missouri winter. With his people wandering as religious refugees, while being incarcerated and abused himself, Joseph Smith dictated some of his most poignant and powerful letters, including sections 121 and 122 of the Doctrine and Covenants, personal favorites of mine. Yet not every part of these letters were included in the Church’s canonization process, yet they are no less powerful for it. This statement from Joseph Smith, especially, impresses me:         

The things of God are of deep import and time and experience and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man, if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the lowest considerations of the darkest abyss, and expand upon the broad considerations of eternal expanse: he must commune with God. [1]
            Our family was asked to speak today on the Plan of Salvation. A very broad topic, considering it encompasses the entirety of premortal, mortal, and postmortal existence! So each of us have narrowed it down in our own way. As I pondered how I might approach the topic, the above segment from Liberty Jail came to my mind.  
There are some who try to stereotype Mormons as plastic smiled, inauthentic automatons. Somewhere between the Stepford Wives and Leave it to Beaver.  I’ve heard Mormons called ignorant, naive, and superstitious. If there is any truth to the stereotype, then that is not how it was intended by the Church’s mortal founder Joseph Smith, nor the beings we worship and from whom we have received our modern and ancient revelations. As Brother Joseph said, we are to understand everything from the utmost heavens to the darkest abyss. God is not trifling with us, so we better not trifle with what we’re supposed to learn.     

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A Compassionate Conference

Many critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints like to paint its leadership as a group of intolerant bigots that are ill-informed and ill-equipped to handle the modern world. This characterization has always felt false and grotesquely cartoonish to me, especially growing up, as I did, carefully watching and listening to the leaders of the Church. Even when occasionally I have disagreed with certain policies in the Church, or felt that certain rhetoric was unhelpful or even harmful, I have usually believed, earnestly so, in the basic honesty and integrity of the men and women within the various quorums and auxiliaries of the LDS Church, and believe that they are striving to live by the spirit of prophecy and revelation, to which God responds. Like many other leaders of world religions--Pope Francis, whom I really admire, comes to mind--they have heavy burdens and responsibilities, not the least of which is to petition God on behalf of their people.

I know many may see that as hopelessly naive--I know because I have read the books, papers, blogs, and Facebook posts of such skeptics. I have listened to their podcasts. I have sat down with them and heard their grievances. And I have had my own dark nights of the soul when a certain article, a particularly troubling historical tidbit, or what seems to me a benighted and backward policy rears its shadowed hooves to try and stamp my faith out of me. I do not take doubt or skepticism lightly, nor do I judge or condemn my friends and loved ones when they have left the faith... or stay, but stay in a constant state of intellectual and spiritual tension. I believe I understand them on certain levels, I believe I am at times part of their fellowship. If I had made a different turn here or there, if I had given way to a particularly bad attack of despair, it could have just as easily been me who abandoned ship.

Today, however, is not a day of doubt. Today is not the labyrinth of questions. I felt the Spirit of God burn peace in me as I watched a very remarkable group of spiritual leaders speak against many of the troubling trends popping up in our present-Trump, post-Truth, fake news, alt. right, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, Nordic Sunrise, Twitter-happy world. Instead of dodging troubling practices about women; or pushing policies against innocent children who should never be pushed away, should never be required to deny their parents, especially since the Church has no doctrine about original sin; instead of obstructing our faith with such distractions, I saw the leaders of the LDS Church rise to the occasion of the times and fulfill their calling in a way I have not witnessed since I was in high school and was continually invigorated by the likes of Neal A. Maxwell, Gordon B. Hinckley, James E. Faust, and a younger Jeffrey R. Holland.

Today current Mormon leaders like Dieter F. Ucthdorf, Thomas S. Monson, Dale G. Renlund, and an older Jeffrey R. Holland rallied to give us a spiritual feast with messages of kindness, love, tolerance, and forgiveness. When the political and secular world is on an unnerving precipice, but still dances on with an inebriated din of prejudice, conflict, fear, and wrath; when even those within our own community in Utah have disgraced themselves by turning away the poor in Draper; or when Jason Chaffetz turns a blind eye to corruption when he has been called as a political guard on the watchtower; our own prophets, seers, and revelators seem to have woke on their own watchtowers and tried to rouse the rest of us to a heightened sense of light, despite a dark world.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Mormon Schulz: Scott Hales' _Garden of Enid: Part One_ and _Mormon Shorts_

Sunday mornings were special. I would pad out in my awesome, baby blue, 80's footy pajamas, look through the Sunday paper, and find the color. For as long as I can remember, comics were a part of my life (I have the photos to prove it). Peanuts, Garfield, Foxtrot, Sherman's Lagoon, Mother Goose and Grimm, and Calvin and Hobbes were personal favorites, but everything from the irreverent Farside to the much more innocent Family Circus were all welcome additions to my time sunbathing in the warm window light on my belly on the living room floor, feet lifted and crossed above me. Even Bloom County/Outland was a source of fascination for me, though I strained to understand its political context at that young age.

As I grew older, my love for comics didn't die, it just changed. I eventually crossed over to reading comics of a different kind, like X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, yet if there is a newspaper handy, I still almost always flip to the comics section to look for my old friends. As newspapers are becoming rarer in my life, though, I am now getting in the habit of buying the published collections of old comics. I have started reading my initial volumes of The Complete Peanuts to my six year old for her bedtime, and I find it incredibly bonding. My kids may not grow up with newspapers, but they will know who Charlie Brown and Hobbes are.   

So with my love of the medium, when Scott Hales started publishing his web comic Garden of Enid, I was attracted to its mix of whimsical humor; literary undergirding; soul searching pathos; and obscure references to Mormon history, arts, and culture. Just blend up all my favorite things into one tasty smoothy, whydontcha? The writing is whip-smart, the references often subtle, and the humor human, humane, and hilarious.  

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Live Coal

This is a speech I delivered for a Mormon Literature Class at BYU on October 17, 2016. 

            The house was filled with smoke. The Lord was upon a throne, high, lifted up. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah beheld seraphim, heavenly beings with six wings. Two of the wings were being used to block the glory of the seraphim’s faces (perhaps to protect Isaiah from their fiery countenance), two were being used to cover the seraphim’s feet (perhaps to protect the earth from splitting into two at their touch), and two with which to fly.
            One of the seraphim spoke…what does a seraph sound like? Does the process of sanctification change beings, their very sound, their very voice, their very vocal nature? What does an immortal, glorified being like a seraph sound like? Isaiah reported that its voice moved the very door posts and its reverberating, sanctified utterance was reported saying thus: “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”
In the presence of the Lord and these Seraphim, Isaiah could easily see the immense difference between his fallen state and these higher natures and he despaired at the difference: “Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.”
Then a seraphim flew to the smoking altar with tongs, and lifted out of it something hot, red, and burning—a live coal. The seraph flew to Isaiah and placed its singeing surface on Isaiah’s mouth and declared: “Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.” Isaiah then volunteered to use his new, cleansed voice to declare impending dooms; humankind’s deaf, blind, and forsaking nature; and the sanctifying salvation that had so transformed his own words, and would transform others into the holy seeds that would grow and replace such a discarding desolation. [1]
            That image of a burning coal touching Isaiah’s tongue has often transfixed me. The horrific nature of the morbid visualization of such a scorching, scarring, and searing experience passes when you realize that the coal is not meant to torture, but rather to purify. Are the fires of hell not a punishment after all, but rather an opportunity to be redeemed and cleansed—to walk away from the experience as a transformed being?
            As a Mormon playwright, I have often felt like I live a world of competing contraries: Zion vs. Babylon, the Church vs. the World, Humanity vs. Depravity, the Individual vs. the Community, Conscience vs. Dogma, Conformity vs. Eccentricity, Art vs. Assembly Line… through such banal and broad categorizations, often we are led to believe that we live in a polarized world of oil and water that cannot mix. I have encountered attitudes on both sides that seem to have placed the world of literature, performance, and art solidly on one side, and religious devotion on another, especially of the orthodox variety. Some secular humanists often see churches in a long line of manipulative, coercive, and oppressive institutions that are intent on sinister purposes to collect power; while some religionists believe that those involved in art and literature generally are licentious, godless bohemians who are part of a vast left-wing conspiracy eroding the fabric of society.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pioneer Day

This is a Pioneer Day talk/speech I delivered today in my LDS ward (congregation) on July 24, 2016 in Orem, Utah.

            With wagons yearning West, they had been driven from a country that feared and mistrusted them. They were exiles and refugees who saw an extermination order placed upon them from the Governor of one state, urged by mobs and the populace; and had the Governor of another state betray them and orchestrate the circumstances that murdered their Prophet and once again forced them out, again with the support of the citizenry. The leader of these unfortunates, a man named Brigham Young, had seen his predecessor shot down in cold blood, and had lived in that same fear ever since, hiding and disguising himself from assassins before yet another Exodus; striving to protect his people, but also being protected by them.
The Exodus this time was not from one state to another, but into the wilderness, away from American civilization, abandoning their unsold houses; far away from General Stores, or streets, or theaters, or any convenience offered by mid-19th century society. It was a prospect daunting enough that not everyone in their religion came with them. Emma Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Lucy Mack Smith, William Marks, William Smith—once luminary names in their faith but, for one reason or another, did not follow their brothers and sisters into the West. So some were left behind to walk their own difficult, tragic, and often beautiful paths, while this “nation of heroes,” as the New York Times called them,[1] heard a voice calling them West, further West into the desert, into the wilderness, into the mountains. A Voice, the Voice of God, the Voice of their Redeemer beckoned. How could they deny it when they had heard it so clearly in their hearts?
These were a people who had already endured hardship; had seen their friends, neighbors, and families massacred, raped, pillaged, and maimed for their faith. Their skin was more sun burnt, their hands rougher, their hearts heavier than when they had begun this journey of faith. Some of them bore scars they did not have before; some of them suffered from post-traumatic stress; some of them were divided from their families, whether through alienation caused by joining such a new and foreign faith, or through death; some of them were now wary of their former countrymen and government that had forced them out; some of them suffered from disillusionment, even doubt. But that Voice continued to call nonetheless, call them by name, and those who know that Voice, know their Shepherd, and are known by Him.
We call these people Pioneers. Here among the Mormons in Utah, we celebrate them on this day, the 24th of July, the day Brigham Young’s Vanguard Company rolled into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 and beheld their new home. From their temporary stopping place in Omaha, Nebraska (what we now call Winter Quarters and where they suffered great privations after being exiled from Nauvoo, Illinois), to their final stopping place in the Salt Lake Valley, the Mormon Trail is 1,300 miles long. It had taken the Vanguard Company from April 5 to July 24 to make the distance. That’s over three and a half months. That’s more than a mere camping trip, that’s more than a long walk—that’s a whole season. That’s a quarter of a year in the elements, in the wilderness, among danger, heat, wildlife, storms, wind, dust, and death.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

My Year of Shakespeare Over at _I'll Drown My Book_

On my other blog about literature, art, humanities, etc., I've published an Introduction to a series of posts I'm writing about my past "Year of Shakespeare." For those Bardophiles out there, enjoy!

Here's the link:

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Shame, Support, and a Mormon Playwright

Note: On Thursday, November 5, 2015, I was invited to Skype in and speak to Kylie Nielson Turley’s Mormon Literature class about Mormon Drama. As they had already read my historical overview in Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, I decided to go more personal. This is what I came up with, followed by a wonderful Q&A session…what a sharp class! This was NOT meant to be a commentary on recent events in the Church, on either side. Correlations between the relationship between the LDS and LGBT communities addressed in the essay are purely coincidental, in regards to the current controversy, and were not intended to be construed as any public statement regarding it.

Farewell to Eden Cast
Me and the 2004 cast of Farewell to Eden

I was at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in April of 2004 for the national festival for the American College Theatre Festival. It was a time of personal celebration and accomplishment for me, I was so happy to be there, feeling so lucky and blessed—it was the last place I was expecting a figurative gut punch.

Due to the support and mentorship of my playwriting professor James Arrington, my play Farewell to Eden had received its premiere at Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University) that previous November, and then had been invited to KCACTF’s regional festival in California. The play really excited a lot of the judges and audiences there, despite being a relatively religious play performing before chiefly secular audiences. Although the production itself didn’t advance to the national festival, I was invited to attend to receive a couple of awards for the writing of the play.

At the National Festival, I attended a workshop with Oskar Eustis, a renowned director, dramaturg, and theatre artist. He was the Artistic Director who commissioned and directed Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Angels in America in its premier in San Francisco at the Mark Taper Forum. As the subject of his workshop, he discussed the process of developing Angels in America and working with Tony Kushner, which was all very fascinating. I found his thoughts on the interaction between politics and theatre particularly interesting, and was enjoying his dynamic and personable style of speaking. It was also very fun hearing how the development of such a dynamic, famous, and powerful play came about. Eustis’s personal anecdotes about working with Tony Kushner were really insightful into the creative process, not to mention quite funny. Like I said, I was happy to be there. Grateful, even. I felt like I was among like-minded people celebrating an art form I loved, and listening at the feet of those who had accomplished great things within that art form. I was laughing, I was listening, I was enjoying myself.

Then came that gut punch. Obviously, since Eustis was talking about Angels in America, it was a distinct possibility that Mormonism was going to come up. Anyone with any cursory awareness of the two plays knows that it heavily features Mormon characters in conflict with LGBT characters, and draws heavily upon Mormon iconography with much of its symbolism and thematic material. However, despite its often aggressive stance against Mormons, Kushner also allows for some sympathetic treatment of Mormon characters with the character of Hannah, a tough and insightful LDS matriarch within the play. So, as a Mormon playwright myself, I thought that if my faith community came up, it would probably come up in a balanced way, stating some of our general flaws as a community, but also recognizing that not all Mormons are uniform in their beliefs, and that Mormons should be treated with the nuance and respect that any population grouping deserves.

Mormonism did come up, but not with nuance, and not with an eye towards sympathetic characterization.