Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Decent Melody

In American society, there are times when a court has to decide what the legislature meant when it drafted a particular law or statute. One of the rules of statutory interpretation or construction requires that every part of a statute be presumed to have some effect, and should not be treated as meaningless unless absolutely necessary. In other words, when reading a statute, the court must read the language to allow all parts of the statute to stand. If a court were to read a statute in a way that a particular provision was superfluous, the reading of that court would most probably be overturned on appeal. Logically, it doesn’t make sense for the legislature to include provision (iii) if the way the statute is applied makes provision (iii) unnecessary.

For example, the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of Tennessee states that “the General Assembly shall have no power to . . . alter the salary of any office” until the term of that office is over. So, when the Commissioners of Shelby County voted themselves a pay raise while they were still in office, the Tennessee state court got to decide whether they could do that. The court looked to the Sixth Amendment, and, reading the language, decided that, if they allowed the Commissioners to change their own salaries while they were in office, the introductory phrase of the statute would be unnecessary i.e., the General Assembly shall have no power, was superfluous. The only way to make sense of the whole statute was to actually give the General Assembly no power. So, the court held that the Shelby County Commissioners acted in violation of the Tennessee Constitution when they gave themselves a pay raise.

This rule of statutory construction has been on my mind lately. Not as it relates to reading statutes, but as it relates to trying to make sense of the triumvirate of divine mandate, prophetic counsel and a personal inspiration available through the Holy Ghost or Spirit. Seems to me that many of us live using only two of the three. It’s safer that way; less room for error. Which one of the holy three is superfluous? Individual spiritual discernment.

I remember reading a fridge magnet about twenty years ago. The language on it boggled me. Sort of still does. It read: “When the prophet speaks, the discussion’s over.” I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that believing that God speaks to a prophet and provides guidance and counsel through him requires the cessation of all discussion. I still can’t.

The application of the prophetic utterance is, I believe, my jurisdiction. That’s where I take the counsel, consider the underlying commandment, and contemplate the most appropriate way to live that in my life and the life of my family. That “application sphere” is where I practice becoming an agent. Problem is that in becoming that agent I could make the “wrong” decision. By that I mean a decision that might, at worst, lead to pain, heartache, or, invariably, just messiness and ambiguity. (A decision is not wrong just because my application of it looks different than another’s.) To eliminate the potential pain and to live as “clutter free” as possible, it’s tempting to live only according to prescribed formulas (preferably published by Deseret Book, because it makes them all the more righter). Where do we find these formulas? Sometimes, we just make them up.

In our religious culture, the interpretation of direction/counsel tends to morph beyond principle into dogmatic prescription. Counsel, provided initially in principle form, mutates into rigid steps on how to live (with a plaque/locket/charm to commemorate them). Not that the giver expects such lock-step adherence; it’s the hearer’s reluctance to be found wrong or out of line that creates a need for prescription, for lists, and for turning to authority on how to live.

Take green tea for example. (I chose this because I just encountered two diametrically opposed viewpoints on it. Both believers convinced.) Can we or can we not drink it? The thought never crossed my mind and I really have no idea. But my trainer’s convinced it’s verboten, and an other friend swears, uneasily, by it. So she's going to her local leader for permission. I'm thinking that if you’re coming to your leader to determine whether you can do something, then something’s amiss. That fact that we feel to ask means that somewhere in that internal mechanism which measures our ethical temperature drinking green tea feels slightly out of line. But we want to drink it; it helps us lose weight. So, to reduce the internal discomfort, the nagging fear we might be doing something wrong, we seek confirmation outside of ourselves on a position that actually runs contrary to our internal promptings. In essence, we seek to make our gift of spiritual discernment superfluous. We turn over to our leaders the responsibility for our actions.

Never are we a happier people than when we are told exactly what to do, because then we couldn’t possibly go wrong. Rather than deciding what a principle means to us and finding the way to live it that sits well, we turn elsewhere: back issues of the Millennial Star, obscure treatises published by who knows which press, our local church authority. Yes, there is a security that is found in specifically following prescribed ways of living. One never really has to consider whether that way is right, wrong, appropriate for the situation, or optional. One doesn’t have to question one’s position. If things go wrong, we are safe from the self-reflection that normally accompanies mistake, error or reversals of fortune. After all, we were following the counsel of our leaders. The danger in this approach is that that we learn to trust only authority outside of ourselves, and we develop very little personal capacity to reach our own decisions, to practice the necessary art of choosing and deciding when there is no clearly defined way.

For me, this method of decision-making violates the rule of statutory construction. This particular world view makes the gift of the Holy Ghost as a tool for decision-making superfluous. Of what use is the gift of the Holy Ghost, if we're asking others how to live our life? Did God give us a party favor? Sort of like a “Thank you for coming, here’s a treat for the ride home.” Where is the growth, the emotional, intellectual and spiritual confidence that must naturally come by wrestling through life’s choices and decisions and coming to stand, however uncertainly at first, within the circle of your own conclusions and decisions? If I don’t do that, how can I be the agent I am designed to be, how can I bring about that good of my own free will and choice? If the answer is always to be found somewhere else outside of myself, how do I develop the self-sufficiency, the self-reliance to make decisions for which I stand fully accountable? In order for the gospel to have any internal consistency, I have to believe that I have been given what I need in order to make informed decisions: a mind, a scriptural base, inspired counsel and the discerning power of the Holy Spirit that is mine and mine alone to listen to. I must use all four of those components in order to reach an authentic, responsible position.

Here's a position I have reached recently. After the vigorous discussion following the post concerning my sister-in-law, I’ve done some thinking and reached some conclusions about the counsel to marry the right person, in the right place, by the right authority. I might not end up in the same place you do, but I have found a place for me to stand, my “decent melody, [the] song that I can sing in my own company.” Here’s how I reached my conclusion-for-now.

The initial, grounding commandment is to multiply and replenish the earth. Is the commandment to multiply and replenish the earth qualified by the “in the right place” counsel? If so, then should one only marry when one has the opportunity to marry in the “right place” or “the right person”? Essentially the question becomes, which holds more power: the first commandment given to our first parents: “multiply and replenish the earth, that you might have joy in your posterity” or the counsel given centuries later, “in the right place, by the right authority, to the right person.” (For some of us, this question never arises, because our life facts are different. But for others, it is the crucible in which faith is tested. Each of us has a question like this, one in which we face the hard edges of our realities.)

What happens then when you live in South Africa, and there is no “right place” for thousands of miles? Do you not marry, even though you might be marrying somebody of the same faith? Of course not. You marry and then save up for the trip to London, even if it takes ten years or it never happens. This application of the right place counsel seems to suggest then that the right place initially, for some, is not always within the temple. That a Rwandan right starting place, given the situation, will be different from the right starting place of another.

Or what happens if you never have the opportunity because you’ve never been invited to marry by the right person i.e., somebody of the same faith? Are you barred from marrying at all? Does the fact that there are no men of the same faith who find you attractive and have asked you to marry them bar you from experiencing the sweet fruits of marriage? Is it really God’s will that a woman is barred, in this life, from the experience of loving a man, of making love, of bearing children, of feeling the child turn in her womb, of teaching and raising children, of working side by side with her husband to fashion a home, a family and a life because a particular kind of man didn’t ask her.

When push comes to shove, I’m not sure I believe in a God who says, “Yes, because of the cultural anomaly which has developed in western civilization where marriage is dependent, not upon family ties and contracts (which used to ensure that just about every woman but those destined for the convent married), but upon men asking and women waiting, women who are not asked by “the right person” do not get to experience marriage in this life.” I just can’t believe in that kind of Father. The Father I prefer to believe in, and I fully concede I might be creating God in my own favorable image, is one who provides the possibility of “the right time, right place, right authority” to all those souls who seek it.

As I think through this, my mind starts to realize that perhaps some interpretations of the meaning of “in the right place, at the right time, by the right authority” are far more circumscribed than the Lord intended it to be. That in our determination to have very clear rules about marriage so that we are taught it correctly, teach it correctly and apply it correctly, we have narrowed beyond divine intent the meaning of his words. Some have created a marriage construct that allows for no deviation, for no alternatives. There can be only one way of approaching marriage; only one way to start; and no other way to get to that right place and authority. (I ache for those with this worldview who find themselves before the unexpected, completely different altar, offering up their fondest desire in order to stay consistent with their beliefs. I only hope it’s a sacrifice God really requires.)

For me, when it comes to the application of principles, the only Christian response is one which starts with “as for me and my house” and which allows all others the same privilege to decide and live how, where or what they may. Can it possibly be that an answer to this, and any other question including green tea, is yes for some, no for others, doesn’t matter for whoever is left over? How can that be? For the same reason that Nephi slew Laban, and Martha cooked while Mary listened. The spirit’s way is a mysterious and personal one. It’s a way which I must come to recognize and trust in my life.

What’s the danger in this approach? Institutionally—that there are many different versions of righteous living, and facing that variety gives some heartburn and leads to interesting conversations with children around the kitchen counter. It requires individuals to stand more fully grounded in the reasons for why they live as they do when others don’t. Personally—that there will be times when I flail around a bit, when my life is not so graceful, when months and years look like rehearsals, instead of the grand performance. I might get it wrong. Perhaps because I desire something so much I cannot see the way clearly. Perhaps because I search and think through with a desired end in mind, instead of an open heart and an open mind. Perhaps because I am listening not to spirit, but to ego, pride or fear.

No matter. Getting it wrong, being clumsy is to be expected as I learn how to make good applications--not right, just good. For the privilege of becoming good and of using all the faculties I have been given, I am willing to stand corrected, in a new place, and begin again the process of finding my way.

(Title: from U2, Stuck in a Moment)


  1. Very well written, thought provoking, etc. I have so many thoughts racing around my mind as a result--
    I completely agree, first of all, that there is a general tendency to want everything black & white, straight rules on every situation, with no interpretation or personal application necessary. It's so much safer that way. I think LDS culture ingrains that insecurity into youth by things like that magnet you read on a fridge. They think, "Okay, I'm supposed to pray about things for myself, but I will never get an answer that is different from what the prophet (or my priesthood leader) has already said. . . . but, what if I DO get a different answer? Well, then it must not be from God. (& etc.)" And yes, in most (if not all) cases, that is probably going to be the actual result: confirmation of what we've been told to do. But it makes for an interesting internal dialogue should the result of heartfelt prayer and fasting ever actually be different. What then?
    I remember quite well on my mission being hesitant/reluctant to be the one to choose where to go tracting. Seems like a silly thing, but really, I was scared that I wouldn't make an inspired choice, that I'd miss the Spirit telling me where to go, and we'd not find some amazing person just waiting for us to teach them the Gospel. So I held back and made my trainer pick where to go, every day. It was safer. I didn't want to be held accountable for seeking (and perhaps misinterpreting) the Spirit in such a decision. I think I missed out on a lot of growth for my first two transfers. And while I definitely changed over time and trained some sisters myself, there was a part of me that was never wholly confident in myself-- I always felt that there was a level of personal revelation in missionary work that I wasn't at, and wished that something could just tell me exactly where to go, who to talk to, what to do each day so I wouldn't be "wasting time"-- and as a result, I think I missed out on a lot of what a mission is all about. But . . . alas. I have rambled on. I don't know the answer to your question of whether there are certain decisions that may be "yes" for some, "no" for others, and "irrelevant" for the rest. I am leaning towards that being a likely possibility. (PS: As a third year law student, I especially appreciate your application of the topic to statutory interpretation!)

  2. Tessa:

    You don't know me, but I love you! I have loved your writing since I heard you speak at a BYU women's conference years ago. I have searched out and savored many articles by you over the years. I'm so happy to have found your blog. You are able to put into words so many things that are in my heart. Thank you.

    (I'm really not a stalker, even though I may sound like one.)

  3. I agree completely that we should not blindly follow leaders with no internal conviction if what we are doing is right. That is a VERY unstabele foundation that will eventually...probably sooner rather than later crumble. It's amazing how people don't just trust their feelings. I loved your example on green tea. Someone FEELS as though it isn't right, but they seek leaders to validate it because they want to drink it. Baptized members of the church have been given the Holy Ghost to be their constant companion (assuming of course that we are living in a way in which the spirit can be present), and ALL children of God have the light of Christ. And yet we are constantly stumbling around our decisions, overthinking everything, when we have this glorious gift of personal revelation and the Holy Spirit to guide us. I believe that we THINK far too much and trust our feelings far to little.
    I also do not believe that God is a God of checklists. I do not believe that we get to the judgement with a checklist in God's hands going over everything...Mission? Check. Temple Marriage? Check. Lack of caffinated beverages? Check. Thank goodness it's not that way!
    Speaking of marriage. This is a perfect example of following what your spirit tells you. Not everyone's path is the same. For one person marrying a non member could be absolutely the right thing for their particular path, and absolutely the wrong thing for someone else. We have to stop looking and judging everyone around us to make sure we are doing things according to the "prescribed method". We are all just doing the best we can, and hopefully making informed decisions through prayer and faster and trusting that inner voice.

  4. On a funny note, I was at a neighbor's chatting when I noticed the beverage he was sipping. I asked, "is that green tea?" When he responded, "yes, do you have a problem with green tea?" I burst out laughing and assured him I have no opinion on green tea. I wish I had enough leisure time and was perfect enough to devote any spare time on judging others and their choices. Unfortunately, I have plenty of my own personal endeavors to judge and work on.

    I would agree that part of this predicament are issues relating to not trusting yourself, thinking (thanks to the culture) we have to be perfect, thinking we aren't allowed to make mistakes, which is quite false or we wouldn't have a plan of salvation in place that includes the gift of repentance, feeling insecure and unconfident about tough decisions, doubting whether or not we are being open enough to receive the revelation necessary for us, having to weather the critiquing of those around us, etc.

    Thanks for the post!

  5. Thank you for your thoughts and words. I have come to know for myself that God is a God and not a man, and He is continually trying to teach us about God, about being Gods, or becoming Gods. It seems that we loose that "learning process" along the way and fall into thinking like mere mortals when we deal with God, our Father. I see Him as giving to us "basics", eternal "basics", and He seeks to help us "grow" by the power of the Holy Ghost from there. It states in the scriptures that the gospel is put forth in a form that the least may be able to understand. Does that in itself not state that Father has intentions to move us beyond those basics by means of the Holy Ghost?

    When looking at examples in scripture stories I see that those who truly came to "know" God were put in situations that extended beyond the bascis, to a place where they totally had to rely upon the Holy Ghost to walk with them every step of the way and hold the course designated by God himself. Examples of such would include Abraham in sacrificing Isaac, Nephi slaying Laban, Joseph Smith reintroducing polygamy, to name a few.

    When you have a true and burning desire to "know" God, He will try your trust in Him, and if the path were a clear cut one, where would the trust lie? I do believe there are many out there who walk this path, and the circumstances are so sacred, as with all personal experiences with our Father are, they just cannot be shared publically. If they are, the bond of trust is broken.....

  6. Thank you so much for this. You are so talented and I hope to see you speak someday!

    I once had a bishop ask me in a temple recommend interview if I drank Coke. I was shocked! I said I didn't think it was an appropriate question and he withdrew it. He then went on to tell me the sins if drinking Coke and that my body wouldn't be clean enough to enter God's House. He must have seen me or heard about me drinking a Coke...who knows?

  7. Ahhhhh . . . intelligence in blogging. Thank you for that before I even get to your content.

    I agree with Meranda, that God is a God and not a man. Just as men are men and not gods. I just had a somewhat faith-shaking experience that eventually strengthened my conviction that it is not only our right but our responsibility to seek spiritual confirmation of any and all advice or callings we receive from Priesthood holders. I ended up in the middle of a power struggle between a bishop and a stake president. And had I had the wherewithal to seek confirmation from the Holy Ghost in the first place, the entire situation could have -- no, WOULD have been avoided.

    I also have a firm belief that our situations, all different, affect our accountability, diminishing or increasing as the level of difficulty increases and decreases, in constant flux. I am acutely aware that my situation is one of comparative ease and thus my responsibility to continually seek God's will in my life is paramount. Without that "party gift" I am lost, blown about by the winds in a sea of uncertainty, because we are all trying, in our own ways, to navigate our individual paths.

    As you say, a mind, a scriptural base and inspired council -- those are all necessary. But only with the discerning voice of the Spirit can we truly find effective ways of applying all of those in our lives. When you discount divine communication on an individual basis, you negate the idea that the spark of divinity exists in each of us, and to dismiss the gift He has so freely given us either denies the need of that gift, or your worthiness to receive it. If we can, with certainty, assume that the gift is taken when our worthiness is lacking, we must also assume that if we can still receive guidance, our worthiness is not in question, at least not to a degree severe enough to warrant the withdrawal of the Spirit.

    Okay, so where I'm going with all of this rambling is here: I agree with you whole-heartedly. The inspiration of the Holy Ghost, a gift given on an individual basis, is the key to individual application of spiritual principles. And you won't catch me settling for anything less (I hope). After all, if God wants to communicate directly with me, if He is willing to help me choose the right path, who am I to say no?

    By the way -- have you heard the acoustic version of Stuck in a Moment? It's a little obscure . . . my husband and I went to see them in Atlanta a few years ago, and for their last encore, Bono & The Edge played that song. Just a voice and a guitar. I hadn't really loved the song until then. For Christmas that year, my dear one moved heaven and earth to locate a hard-to-find Canadian single of the acoustic version and it remains one of my favorite U2 songs of all time. And that's really saying something. We have tickets to see them in Atlanta again this coming October. Since I'll be the hugely 8-months pregnant woman four rows back, maybe I'll write a letter to U2 and ask for a replay as a baby gift. I won't be naming this baby Bono, but still -- I'll be 8 months along!

  8. I haven't heard that version. I would love it. Limewire? Hope you enjoy the concert, and the feeling of that baby tumbling. It's one of my greatest feelings I have ever experienced. Maybe I'll join you in October. Never seen them live. Would be a dream.

    And yes, I have had that same experience with authority. Actually sat watching a good man tumble with/from the spirit (I don't know how else to describe it, when my request fell outside of protocol, of procedure and he felt to honor it but decided not to because of the precedent it would set to others). Took me years to get to a place that wasn't filled with partial disgust and humiliation. Perhaps I should not have gone to request in the first place, but I'm better for having moved through that experience. Far more independent, more removed, less enamored and as a result more able to see clearly my impulses, my desires, programs and structures, and what is needed for them and for me. A little cryptic, I know but I still live where I live:)