Left to Tell

left to tell

I’ve read this one before, but I loved it so much I wanted to read it again for the “Reading the World” challenge: Left to Tell, by Immaculée Ilibagiza.

This is the autobiography of a woman who was caught in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. A million people were killed in three months, most of them with machetes. Most of them by their neighbors. Some of them by their friends and family. Immaculée tells about the political and social climate that led to her ethnic group, the Tutsis, being hated and feared by the Hutus. After years of indoctrination, the ruling powers of Rwanda ordered the “extermination” of the Tutsi “cockroaches,” and people obediently went on a killing spree.

Immaculée survived this by hiding in a minister’s bathroom for 91 days with seven other women.

What I appreciate most about this book is that Ilibagiza tells how her experiences have strengthened her faith in God, and in humanity. She tells horrible, graphic, unthinkable things she has suffered, and then in the next breath, tells why she still has hope in the future, and why she still relies on God to help her. While most stories choose either to tell “good news” or “bad news,” Ilibagiza is dedicated to sharing truth—even hideous truth—and then giving you the courage to face it.

This book is not for children, obviously. But it’s a beautiful account of suffering and hope, and I would recommend it to anyone old enough to handle a brutal history. ♦

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A Few Thoughts About Andrew

A few weeks ago, my little brother Andrew died rather unexpectedly.

I shouldn’t say unexpectedly; we’ve kind of been waiting for his body to give out for the past few years. He’s been in and out of hospitals most of his life. Cardiologists have been impressed his flawed heart has made it this long—even half this long.

Still, that almost made it more unexpected for me. I’ve been living my life with the understanding that Andrew was a medical miracle, that he would stay until he died, and that I had no way of knowing when that was. When he was actually dying, I only really had about two days’ notice.

Mom sent out a text from the hospital (where Andrew was staying, again, and nobody seemed to bat an eyelash, because he’s in the hospital all the time.) Anyway, Mom sent out a text talking about how difficult it was to watch her son struggle to breathe, and she felt like he might not have much time left. She hadn’t slept all night, watching by Andrew’s bedside. I assumed she was overreacting and sleep-deprived, and called Dad to find out what was going on. Dad confirmed what Mom had said, though; Andrew didn’t have long to live.

Ethan came home from work early and drove me down to the hospital, then waited with John while I went up to say my goodbyes. Andrew was ornery, mildly sedated, and unamused by my comments about the cute nurses. Eventually, I got a smile, a hug, and an understanding that he wanted me to go back to Provo. Which I did.

The next morning, my parents gave the okay to take out his IVs. I came back the next day, just to see how he was doing, and walked into the room just as he was taking his last breaths. I stayed to hear my dad give him a final father’s blessing, then to watch him die. It wasn’t as fast a process as I thought it would be, but it was also more peaceful than I had expected.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been blessed by friends and family willing to help me clean, talk, cry, and laugh. My cousins’ children learned enough sign language to perform a musical number in ASL at the funeral. My aunt and uncle stayed while Andrew died, and then stayed in town throughout the next week. We’ve received a lot of support as a family.

It’s been an unusual grieving process for me; when my cousin’s wife died last year, I had a harder time accepting it. She was young, healthy, and had a husband and child to take care of. My brother, on the other hand, probably took a step up by leaving his body behind. His health was crap, and has been getting worse for years. As his pain levels went up, his personality clouded, and he got crabbier and crabbier. Besides all this, he had special needs, and looking at the afterlife raises interesting questions there.

I have never doubted that there is life after death, or that we will be the same people there (wherever) as we were here. But leaving behind his physical body means, technically, my brother might not have Down Syndrome anymore. I don’t know whether he’s autistic now—I don’t know enough about it to feel out whether that’s a physical-body-only thing, or whether that’s a personality thing. At any rate, I do have a strong impression that he’s much better able to think, function, and express himself now than he has been for the past twenty-four years. I just wish I was as able to listen.

We had a remarkable opportunity on Saturday to meet with a General Authority from the Church, Elder David Warner, who was in town for a stake conference. Apparently, my parents’ stake president told him what we were going through, and how much our neighborhood had banded together around my parents. The two of them arranged to meet us at my parents’ house.

I was expecting to be intimidated, or at least to feel a little guilty. I’m pretty sure that was anxiety talking, though—he introduced himself as “David,” chatted with my parents about favorite cars, and ate cookies while trying to make friends with my son, who was running circles around the room and chattering like a monkey. He asked about my brother, listened to our funny stories, laughed with us, sympathized, and assured us that Andrew was uniquely equipped now, more than ever, to sympathize with people who had led difficult lives. “You have a missionary in the field,” he told my parents,”and you should expect blessings to come to your family as a result of that. Andrew can now share the gospel with those who’ve already died, and he has experiences to draw upon that few others do.”

I was also struck by the reverence with which he looked at my  parents. “You’re doing this right,” he said. “There’s joy in this room. And that means you appreciate the time you were given with Andrew. Don’t feel guilty for being happy without him—he’s still here.” He then gave each of us a personal blessing before leaving us with a smile and a request to stay in touch. Mom, of course, gave them cookies for the road.

I’ve had my faith and my endurance tried over the past few weeks, but one thing I know for certain: God loves me. He loves my brother. And my brother—who is just the same person he was before he died—loves me, too. It’ll take some time before I see him again, but I have no doubt that I’ll recognize him, and we’ll finally be able to sit down and have a good, long chat. ♦

The God Who Weeps

the god who weeps

I started reading The God Who Weeps for a book club. I didn’t finish it on time, due to a combination of bad time management and the authors’ dense language. But I did enjoy the book and the book club, and I did manage to finish it.

The God Who Weeps, by Terryl and Fiona Givens, is a philosophical explanation of Mormon doctrine concerning God and His relationship to us down here on Earth. It is very thorough, and the language is very academic (which is one reason I had such a hard time finishing it on time for book club). I would highly recommend it to anyone who’s confident with denser material and wants to know more about what Mormons believe. I would also highly recommend it to any Mormon who’s confident with denser material, because it highlights and stresses our ability to have a strong connection with God, even though we’re not perfect.

I feel like there’s something lacking here, however. Everybody in book club said they would recommend it to all their Mormon friends and most of their other friends. I just kind of sat there for a while, and then finally asked, “Am I the only person who has friends who wouldn’t understand a word of this?”

I’m not saying I have stupid friends. I’m just saying that most of my friends – and I – use the words “Taco Bell” more often than we use the word “cosmos.” This book is so academic that I don’t think I would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t consider themselves an intellectual. The writing is about as dense as C.S. Lewis.

On the flip side, I’m not sure how much I appreciated it as an academic work, because the sources were cited poorly. I know I’m being super picky – but I’m a huge stickler on citations, and the authors don’t even specify which quotes come from where – they just have a huge amalgamation of “where we got our stuff” at the back of the book, and you have to go digging through it if you want to find anything specific.

I would still recommend this book – but only to those who are looking for a good, introspective, philosophical look at the nature of God. If you want something just as dense (or denser), but with better notes, history, and citations, read James E. Talmage’s Jesus the Christ. If you’re looking for something a lot less dense, pick up a copy of Preach My Gospel (the missionary manual), or a Gospel Principles manual. ♥

The New Testament

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How exactly do you review a religious work? I mean, the New Testament is quite possibly the most influential text ever written. As far as literature goes, I would argue that it’s the best of any scripture I’ve read, because it’s in fairly chronological order and tells a full story – sort of. Except that the story gets told four times, then commented on, and then there’s a slightly related prophecy at the back.

The New Testament is one of my favorite books to read, because I’m a Christian. Reading an account of Christ brings a spirit of humility and general goodness into my daily routine, as well as providing an example of the kind of person I want to be. My faith in Christ has made me who I am, and continues to shape me into a better person. I also find it poignant that in the spiritual economy of things, God felt that my salvation was worth the life of a God. So this book influences me deeply. Still, I’m not sure I would recommend it for a book club unless your group of friends is really interested in religion.

I would, however, recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it at least once, regardless of religious beliefs. (So maybe if your book club hasn’t read it yet, you ought to give it a shot.) People talk about Jesus all the time – trust me, you’ll find opportunity to discuss it. Also, I would recommend the epistles of Paul to most of my LDS friends, because I think sometimes we get so caught up in modern scripture that we forget about them. And they’re some of the best doctrinal commentary I think I’ve ever read.

Jesus Christ is the example we’ve set most of our society on (or claimed to), and I feel like this is a must-read. It builds faith for those seeking faith, and builds understanding for those seeking to understand faith. And if you’re trying to be a good person, I think it does a good job of providing a hero to follow. The King James Version (which I read) is a little dry and Shakespearean, but if you can follow the language, it’s worth it for the poetic effect. If not, pick up a more modern translation. ♥

Merry Christmas, From David

Last Saturday, I had a prenatal “Coping With Labor” class. It was basically an extensive “how to keep from freaking out when you’re in pain” workshop, and I was kind of feeling alienated. For one thing, Ethan had his final graduation project due in a few days, and couldn’t come to class with me – so I was the only person there without a partner. I hadn’t slept well, and I was trying really hard not to fall asleep throughout, and my voice was way lower than usual (because I was half asleep), and I didn’t think I was looking too hot (because I was half asleep)… basically, I wasn’t feeling too social or too confident. And when you combine an unsociable mood with 8 months of pregnancy, you seriously just don’t feel like talking to people.

When the nurse mentioned that some people like to listen to more “peppy” music than others during labor, my brain immediately started playing “Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap)”. That was stuck in my head until the class concluded, at which point my brain switched over to “Highway to Hell.” Wow, I thought. I’m ready for motherhood. I was starting to think I was a total freak.

On top of all this, I’m usually a very active person, and I try to go out of my way to help people around me. During pregnancy, however, I apparently Animorph into a gigantic slug. I have zero energy, and not enough brain power to finish a sentence. Over the past few months, I have become a vegetable of sorts. I’m here. I live. I just don’t usually feel like I contribute to society. And when I try, I usually end up hurting myself.

Long story short, Saturday morning I was on autopilot – and by about noon, when the prenatal class ended, I was kind of feeling sorry for myself. I stopped off at Arby’s on the way home (the baby was driving, apparently), went in, and ordered more food than I probably had room for. I tried to smile and be friendly and all that, but I was also avoiding talking to anyone unless I absolutely had to. I got my food and went to a back table, where people would be less likely to see me.

That’s when a guy came in, sauntered over to the corner table across my way, and dropped his backpack on a chair. He sat down for a few minutes, looked around him with a smile, and then stood up and walked around the restaurant. He walked in a circle around the tables, glanced at the menu, ordered nothing, then sat down again. A minute later, he got up and walked another lap around the Arby’s. I began to suspect he had some kind of mental disorder, but he was enthusiastic enough that I started smiling.

After taking another lap, he came up to me, pulled a receipt out of his pocket, and wrote something down on it. I wondered if he were Deaf, and needed me to order his food. (But why wouldn’t he just write it down for the cashier? I thought.) He handed me the receipt, and I saw the words, “Corn Chex” neatly written in the corner.

Dude, I thought. You are in the wrong establishment. I must have looked confused, because he took the receipt back. When he returned it, it said, “Corn Chex, 1.49.” “Cost,” he signed – and said, with a thick accent.

I was still confused. The price wasn’t the problem, I thought. I signed, “You bought it already?”

“No,” he signed.

“You can’t buy that here,” I signed back at him. He laughed at me, took back the receipt, and wrote, “Maceys” on it.

At this point, I figured it out. My brother has Autism, and he sometimes brings us scraps of paper with lists of his favorite things: Swedish Fish, M&Ms, names of girls he likes…. I realized this guy was just really excited that Corn Chex were on sale. I looked up at him, and he signed, “My favorite.”

Suddenly it made sense. This wasn’t a question; it was just awkward small talk. “Oh, I see,” I signed. “That is a good price. My favorite is Peanut Butter Crunch.”

He seemed to think that was a fine choice. He introduced himself: his name was David. I gave him my name. He then told me all about his three brothers, which of them were Hearing and which were Deaf, which were “real” brothers and which were step-brothers, in addition to his place in the family (firstborn). He also told me about his ex-girlfriend in Wisconsin, his opinion on Oreos, and how much he liked talking to pregnant women.

By this point, I was actually out of my self-pity shell and enjoying the conversation. There’s something extremely relaxing and low-risk about talking to someone without having to physically verbalize anything. It’s also refreshing to talk with someone who won’t judge you if you change the subject suddenly and almost violently without warning. We discussed quite a few of our favorite foods, and I advised him not to put Arby’s sauce on his Oreos. (He doesn’t; don’t worry. Just milk.)

This whole time, David hadn’t ordered anything. After about ten minutes, a woman approached me and said, “Hey, since you can talk to him – will you ask if I can buy him lunch?” He ordered a number 9 combo, and thanked the woman, who wished him a merry Christmas. By the time his food was ready, his brother had arrived, and the two of them sat down for a few minutes to eat. I eavesdropped while David told an elaborate pantomime about deer hunting. He was a very funny storyteller.

They left after a few minutes, and I finally started eating. By the time I was almost done, David came running back in, got my attention, and asked, “What’s your name? I forgot.”

“My name’s Rachel,” I signed.

“Merry Christmas!” he signed. Then he turned to the manager and said out loud, “Merry Christmas!” while signing it. His speaking voice wasn’t great, so the manager looked at me for a hint.

“Same to you,” I said (and signed). “Merry Christmas!” The manager figured it out and repeated the sentiment. Then David bounced happily out the door, and I finished my meal. I took a pit stop at the restroom, then came out and asked the manager for a water cup.

“That was really nice of you to talk to him,” said the manager as he handed me the cup.

All of the awkward came back, and I didn’t know what to say. “He started it,” I blurted out like a guilty six-year-old, then realizing that didn’t make any sense, I muttered, “Thanks,” and went to fill my water cup. Then I headed out to the car and just sat there for a while, thinking about what the manager had said. Why wouldn’t I have talked to him, I wondered?

Well, if I didn’t know sign. That would’ve made things difficult. So I guess there was that. I was probably the only person in the store who knew ASL. And then it occurred to me that David came and talked to me because I was noticeably pregnant. I was the only in the store who fit that criteria. And that woman wouldn’t have been able to offer to buy him lunch if she hadn’t seen me signing. And then I realized that most people didn’t have any experience carrying on a conversation that had absolutely no rhyme or reason. I might have been the only person in the whole store who had the skill (?) to start a conversation with the price of Corn Chex.

“God,” I said (to God), “Thanks for that. I mean… I’m awkward. But apparently, there are some other awkward people out there and I can still brighten their day.” It made me feel good to know that even when I’m feeling useless and weird, God still knows I want to help. And He can send somebody to help me, too – maybe someone who fits in about as well as I do.

Merry Christmas! ♥

The Old Testament

old_testament_law

Woof. The Bible is not easy reading. I don’t even remember when I started in Genesis – but I just finished the Old Testament, and I’m super proud of myself, and of course I’m counting it for this year’s book count.

Now, how does one go about summing up the entire Old Testament? It’s complicated. And not just “1200 pages” complicated (although it is). It’s that the book is actually a collection of much smaller books, written by various different prophets and historians, and many of them out of chronological order. So the best I can hope to do here is to find some kind of running theme.

old testament organization

My dad knew someone who had read the whole Bible, looking for a thesis to the whole work. I think her conclusion was that the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” was supposed to be answered, “Yes, you are – or at least, you’re supposed to be.” (In the words of Jeffrey R. Holland: “…although I may not be my brother’s keeper, I am my brother’s brother…”)

Anyways. I’m not going to spend an eternity here dissecting individual books of the OT – but I would say the most prominent (and relevant) theme I found to connect to my own life was the question, “Do you want a God or not?” Most of the prophets who contribute to this work ask, in one way or another, why the children of Israel keep contradicting themselves. When the Israelites aren’t following God’s commandments, they tell the prophets to leave them alone and find other “gods” who will condone the lifestyle they want. But when the Israelites are in trouble, suddenly they want a God of vengeance and justice, and they get mad that God isn’t being consistent. And the prophet’s like, “Well, do you want God to follow His own rules or not?”

Basically, everybody wants God to take their side – but they don’t want to have to take God’s side. They want a God who will back them up, no matter what they decide to do, with no demands in return. So… they just want to be God.

I thought this pretty accurately described our society today. I’m not saying it describes everybody – but let’s face it: most people just want to be accepted for who they are. Even if who they are is a total jerk. And while I think we should certainly be accepting of people, that doesn’t mean everybody  has the right to be a total jerk. It doesn’t mean everybody’s doing the right thing, just because they say they are. And it doesn’t mean we have to be okay with every decision people make. On the flip side of that, we should take a good, hard look at the way we’re living our own lives. Are we mad when the cops pull us over for speeding? And if we are, do we have any right to get mad at the other drivers on the road when they ignore the law? Basically, I feel like the Old Testament draws a connection: if you want protection, you have to follow the rules. If you want God to defend you, you have to pattern your life the way He asks. ♦

 

What Is “Real Intent”?

One of my favorite scriptures is found in the Book of Mormon, in the book called Moroni:

“But as oft as they repented and sought forgiveness, with real intent, they were forgiven.” – Moroni 6:8

I love this verse. It points out that as many times as we do stupid things (some of us more than others…), God will forgive us. All we have to do to “earn” forgiveness is to repent, seeking forgiveness with real intent. If we ask to be forgiven, and we have “real intent,” we’re forgiven. The question I asked myself today was, “What is ‘real intent’?”

The obvious answer to me is that I intend to do better. Real intent means I’m sorry, I ask forgiveness, and I intend to earn it as best I can. But, because I’m a visual kind of person, that wasn’t quite enough for me to wrap my head around it.

Naturally, my thoughts went next to water sports. (For those of you who thought my blog lacked decent segues, I assure you, it’s the same way inside my head.) Anyway, I thought back to my youth group going wake-boarding every summer. I biffed it a lot. I got a lot of water up my nose. But I kept trying until I could get out of the water. And every time I got in the water, my intent was to stand on the board and stay there as long as possible. It didn’t always happen that way – but that didn’t change my intent.

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Once I got pretty good at standing, I started branching out: holding the rope with one hand instead of clutching it with two, or crossing the wake, or switching the direction of my feet. I usually fell. But I always meant to stay up.

I don’t think repenting with “real intent” means that you’re only forgiven if you succeed the first time. Some sins, like bad habits or addictions, keep coming back. If I have a weakness for anger, I don’t think God will hold it over your head every time you repent. It’s not like He’s going to say, “What, so you didn’t really mean it last time, then?” He knows whether you’re still trying – and as long as you’re trying, He knows you’re still learning. ♦

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