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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.

            And to some extent, there are times of polar opposites, seasons to stand for a cause, and principles worth dying for. Having lived through plenty of my own martyr complexes, I know the feeling that rises in a person to spur them into action for a treasured belief, even to the extent of heroically fighting a demonized dragon that rises like a specter in his or her way.
            However, the longer I have been batted between the monoliths we have set up for ourselves, the more convinced I am that neither side paints an accurate picture of humanity as a whole, or individuals as a part, especially those “other side” of the human experience that they are trying to pit our hearts against. Such demagoguery has become very alarming to me, especially in recent months, and especially with the crassness and lack of nuance used in much of our public dialogue and debate this year. I certainly believe in wickedness is high places, in decaying morality, and in collusion and collaboration by secret combinations that want to deconstruct and disorganize groups that threaten their ultimate goals. But, too often, we lean to heavily on these ideas and throw ourselves into opposing sides, accenting our differences, and ignoring our similarities.
            So, as a Mormon playwright who focuses both on spirituality and humanism, on religion and diversity, on developing a relationship with God and man, I feel like I am often called upon by others to cleave to my faith or my art, my conscience or my community, to draw a line in the sand, and abandon one side or the other. “You can’t serve God and Mammon,” is the reminder of Jesus, isn’t it? “Be ye separate, touch not the unclean thing,” the apostle Paul enjoined. “Go ye out of Babylon,” Isaiah declared.
            Why not take care of my vulnerable soul and heed these warnings?
            And, in the end, I must.
            I certainly must.
            But to be separate does not mean to abandon. When Isaiah’s tongue was cleansed, he was told to go back—go back!—and speak to those who needed to hear his burning words. To be clean in the eyes of God is not be an isolationist, is not to be a self-righteous hermit. “Go ye into all the world,” we were plainly told by Jesus (or Yeshua, as he was called in his native tongue). Yeshua did not turn away the so-called sinner (are we not all sinners?). Yeshua, rather, reached out, included, healed rifts, and decried the prejudice and conflict between groups like the Samaritans and the Jews. Let the wheats and tares grow together. Judge not. Blessed are the peacemakers.  Preach the Gospel unto every creature. Go ye out into the world. Ye are One in Me, as I Am One in the Father.
            When I was re-invited to speak with this Mormon Literature class, I wanted to speak differently than I have in the past, and I began thinking a lot less about my plays and writing and a lot more about how my faith has informed and blessed my writing. Lately I have felt a new Spring dawn on my LDS faith and I wanted my comments to reflect that.
I have never abandoned my faith, never forsaken it—I have had too many powerful spiritual experiences to cast such a pearl away lightly. Yet I have at times felt angst about certain policies and choices made by the Church, and felt keenly how some of those decisions created dissonance with my artistic, theatrical, and literary friends outside of the faith—and I have felt that dissonance even with my own views and experiences.
Yet it’s part of the plan, I think, to experience that dissonance. It forces us to our knees to seek spiritual guidance and revelation. In such “crucibles of doubt,” as Terryl and Fiona Givens have termed them, the dissonance can be fiery, even hellish. We can struggle and ache and wonder and despair and that live coal on our lips and tongue can seem like it is burning us right out of our former peace, burning our hearts out of existence, like fading embers blown away into a dark, heedless night.
At BYU you all are insulated from a lot of that, but even here you are not untouched from the world. You are smart, informed, connected to a global community through technology that is rapidly progressing. You have friends who struggle, families who are broken, loved ones who have left the faith. You have hearts that are troubled; you have painful, alienating experiences. You have felt depressed or anxious or misunderstood or lonely or angry at God, angry at the Church, angry at the culture, angry at your families, angry at yourselves. You feel frustrated that there seem so few mechanisms to make a real impact in the world, to make lasting change. Again, there should no big surprise there—that is all part of being a portion of a fallen world, a fallen race.
“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…”
Who am I to write a novel, or a poem, or a play, or a film? Who am I to speak up, speak out, write down? Are these words not all perversities anyway? Is this not all vanity, corruption, sinfulness? Why read the words of corrupted men and women? Why write corruption myself? Why read blasphemies? Why speak unclean things?
Then descends the seraphim, with the purifying coal of Yeshua. Then descends divine Grace, with the beating of wings, covered face, covered feet, giving us only glimpses of its Glory, bright teases of its immortal light. Feathers float among the smoke filled room, the smoke acting a precursor to the glorious pain that will light our sins and burn our corruption.
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts…”
I felt called by the Lord to my work. It is a sensitive, sometimes unpopular, thing to say something like that. I have heard some Mormon writers and artists really discourage that kind of talk. It calls up delusions of grandeur, ideas about false prophets, and vanity, vanity, vanity…
“I am a man of unclean lips…” Why would anything I have to say be important to anyone, anything I have to write be of any value, what inspiration could be found in a person as flawed and corrupt as me? “I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips…”
I felt called by God to be a playwright, a writer, a theatrical artist, a poet, an essayist, a speaker, a novelist, all the things I have written, all the things I will write are part of an ever expanding attempt to fulfill that mission. Despite all the marred transcripts, the imperfect grammar, the miscarried drafts, the vulgar placing of words, and the awkward phrasings… despite the acute pain I feel when I feel like a piece of mine has been misinterpreted or miscommunicated…despite the sense of failure I feel when I feel I have let the Lord down in not communicating the glory of our Heavenly Parents, the atoning Grace of Christ, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the power of the Restoration…despite the imperfection of my words crying up to me from the dust… despite all of this, I know the many experiences I have had that confirmed my path.
Why else would someone endure the poverty, the struggle, the criticism, the skepticism, the difficulty that lies ahead for anyone who wants to engage seriously with the performing arts and literature? It’s certainly not for the money, and I’ve certainly not gained wide spread fame.
“Holy, holy, holy…”
I had seraphim feathers in my hair, smoke in my face, and a burning coal, burning, burning, burning, holy, holy, holy….
Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me. And he said, Go, and tell this people…”
My writing, my glowing pages, were not to be for Mammon, not for Babylon, not for the Pharisees, nor the criticizing Evangelicals, it was not meant to deliver a message absent of God, nor to uphold mankind’s corrupt cultures… I would stutter, I would spill my ink, I would say things imperfectly… it was not a message to cater to intellectual elites or high minded hypocrites… it was not meant to say all is well in Zion, or to soothe those in my own religious culture into vain complacency, it was not meant to be fluff nor nonsense nor supposedly harmless meaninglessness… I would offend at times, I would come in conflict, I would be embarrassed and clumsy…
“Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed. Then said I, Lord, how long? And he answered, Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate. And the Lord have removed men far away, and there be a great forsaking in the midst of the land. But yet in it shall be a tenth, and it shall return, and shall be eaten: as a teil tree, and as an oak, whose substance is in them, when they cast their leaves: so the holy seed shall be the substance thereof.”
There is a destructive power in words, even a condemning power. Yet they also have the power to heal, to grow, to make and create and organize substance, to plant an oak tree, a teil tree, terebinth, elah, and see the holy trees grow into a forest. They grow imperfectly, with craggy bark and desperate, reaching arms, but the burnt ash at their base gives them sustenance, and their grasping stretch is met with a gentle breeze that blows through their branches. Having been denied so much by the earth, barely surviving, they are delivered by the kind Sky that sings to them its songs and instills dreams in the rings of their memory, and revelations in their acorns.
Like trees, we are rooted in the earth, and reach for the skies. We are people of the earth, but children of the Spirit. We sit on the ground, but feel the wind in our upreaching fingers and on our burnt cheeks. As a Mormon writer, a spiritual playwright, I have been a hybrid, a bastard to this world, but accepted by God. Despite my questionable moral lineage, I have been scoured clean and lifted into my Savior’s arms. A six-winged seraphim put a live coal on my tongue and I cried out with a new voice, “Here I am; send me.”
And another Voice responded, “Go and tell this people.”

[1] The account is found in Isaiah Chapter 6 in the Old Testament.

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