Liberty and Integrity

Earlier today, I tweeted:

A few people asked me where I got the quote.  I am unaware of anybody else who has said it in those exact words, although the idea is very old.  The freedom of our nation and the morality of our choices are bound together.

For me, this sentiment is a matter of faith as well.  An ancient prophet was told by the Lord:

Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; and inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence.

(2 Nephi 4:4)

The Book of Mormon is filled with stories about groups of people who either lived with integrity and enjoyed freedom and prosperity, or else they turned away from their promises to God and suffered in bondage.  It’s one of the main themes of the book.

For me, those stories are even more poignant because they took place in North and South America.  This is a promised land, a place that has been blessed by the hand of God.

Many of us in America like to argue about the best ways to fix our nation.  We like to blame current and former political leaders, corporations, media executives, and others.  We spend so much time arguing that we don’t accomplish much.  Perhaps we should go back to the basics, beginning with this promise about our land:

And now, we can behold the decrees of God concerning this land, that it is a land of promise; and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall serve God, or they shall be swept off when the fulness of his wrath shall come upon them.

(Ether 2:9)

I’m not a doomsday type of guy, and I don’t think the United States will be destroyed next week.  After all, the Bible tells that God would have spared Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of only ten righteous souls.  (Genesis 18:32)  The backbone of America is a core group of good people who follow their convictions and live according to the light they have.  But if we’re wondering how to really fix the country, this is still the fundamental answer: we have to serve God.

So on this Independence Day, I hope we can all do a little more in this one nation under God to live up to our motto – In God We Trust.  Most often, we can serve him best by serving His children.  He has entrusted to us a land that is choice above all others.  We can entrust our future to Him.

May we maintain our liberty by maintaining our integrity, and may we save our nation with the goodness of our lives.

Tolerance

It has taken me a lot of soul-searching to decide how to react to this week’s Supreme Court rulings regarding the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8.

Let me say to begin that no person should be treated as less than human.  We are all children of God, and if we would treat each other as such, many of the problems in the world would cease to exist.  In practical terms, this means that true Christians must treat our homosexual brothers and sisters as our brothers and sisters.  The Golden Rule applies here.

However, when we get into the issue of tolerance, I am concerned that those who decried DOMA as intolerant will exercise their own intolerance toward religions whose doctrines do not permit homosexual marriage.  In the grand scheme of things, gay marriage as defined by the state is not directly relevant to marriage as defined by the scriptures.  The state’s role in marriage is basically to create a binding legal contract between two individuals.  Looking through that lens, it does not matter who those individuals are.  But in a religious sense, that marriage contract goes beyond a state-issued legal license, and there are specific requirements for the parties in the contract.

Churches should retain the right to make judgments about who can marry within their walls.  That is freedom of religion at its core.  These judgments, of course, are not just about the issue of homosexuality.  Churches may require worthiness in other ways in order to marry their parishoners in a Church-sanctioned ceremony.  For example, in order to marry in a temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the bride and groom must live by certain standards, including exercising faith in Christ, maintaining chastity before marriage, paying honest tithing, abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, and certain other harmful substances, and being honest in their dealings.

These requirements are not meant to be exclusive; they are set by the Lord as minimum requirements to enter into a higher covenant of marriage – one that goes beyond a simple legal contract, but includes a promise of an eternal family bond.  This is not just a civil agreement; it is a binding contract between a man, a woman, and God –  solemnized on earth and carried into heaven.

So while I am a proponent of peaceful coexistence and cooperation among God’s children, I am also clearly committed to preserving the rights of religious organizations to set their standards based on their understanding of God’s commandments.  This is not a practice of hate; it is a practice of faith in a God who is perfectly merciful and perfectly just.  A religion that is based on revelation from God cannot alter its standards based on public opinion.

Some religious people have acted out in hate.  They do not represent me.  But the fact that some have taken the wrong approach does not invalidate the position of those who desire to preserve their freedom to worship.  A position against gay marriage is not automatically a manifestation of hate toward gay people.  Intelligent people can disagree on difficult social issues without being disagreeable.

I acknowledge and respect and greatly appreciate the many positive contributions of the gay community and their supporters.  I would hope that they can acknowledge and respect the contributions of those whose faith may not be completely compatible with their choices or practices.  May we finally come to a place where we can live and work together without animosity.

Lest We Forget: A Brief Memorial Day Essay

I am a product of both war and peace.

My father’s side of the family includes several men through the generations who did their military duty, including my grandfather, a veteran of the Korean War era.  He is a hero for many reasons, although his military service was not heavily involved in combat.  When I lived in his house during college, I was touched by the reverence with which he would raise the flag on the pole in his front yard every morning, and every night he would bring it in.  He and my grandmother would fold it together, just like I learned to do as a boy scout.  Love of this country is not casual for them.

On my mother’s side of the family, most of my ancestors were Mennonites, including several ministers.  They were pacifists, and they lived their religion.  This was a people that had been evicted from several European countries because of their beliefs, until they finally landed in the barren heartland of America.  They set to work, growing crops where nobody else could – making a bit of Heaven in places other settlers saw as Hell.  I can imagine the disappointment and the fervent prayers of my great grandfathers, ministers who preached in both English and German, as the dark days of the second World War dragged on.  How frightening it must have been, living in that uncertain world of constant threats, but holding to the conviction that it was better to die than to kill.

Memorial Day is about memory.  It is certainly about the memory of those who died to give us the freedoms we now trample under our feet.  But it is also about the memory of those who lived to preserve our freedom – those who survived to tell the stories, and to write new ones.  The Greatest Generation was not only composed of the dead – it was the generation of those who picked up the pieces of the war and fashioned them into a shining new America.

How many of our young people understand the sacrifices of the past?  The immediacy of technology has produced a silent cultural nihilism.  We live so much in the now that even what happened this morning is old news.  We are losing track of where we came from, not stopping to realize that those points in the past are vital to understand our current trajectory.  We have lost the skill of sacrifice.  And yet, the ability to live happily in this ignorant state was purchased with the lives of men and women who did their duty when the need emerged.

I am indebted to hundreds of thousands of soldiers for the rights to speak my opinions, to pursue my goals, and to worship my God.  But in my remembrance, I must also remember the wives and parents who stayed home and waited by the radio and the mailbox.  I must also tip my hat to the factory workers who made tanks and uniforms instead of cars and pretty dresses.  I have to remember the American people as they were back then during the world wars – and hope that by some miracle I will someday measure up to their standard of hope and patriotism.

Thanks to the veterans who bought our freedom.  Thanks to the Americans of the past who help me remember what that freedom means.  Most of all, thanks to the Christ who bought all of us with an infinite price to give us an infinite freedom.  In Kipling’s Recessionalwe read, “Lord of the nations, spare us yet / Lest we forget, lest we forget.”  If we forget our veterans, we miss the rich lessons of our nation’s past.  If we forget our God, we jeopardize our nation’s future.  The best honor we can give God and our veterans is to live up to the brilliant potential they have granted us.

Essay: Why I Don’t Listen Like You

I teach music for a living.  At the beginning of the semester, kids who are just getting to know me always ask the same question: Mister, what music do you listen to?

I never know quite how to respond.  If I say I don’t really listen to much music, I sound like the least credible music teacher in history.  Occasionally I fib and name a few styles that I enjoyed . . . back when I listened mindlessly.  The truth is that I still listen to plenty of music, but the way I listen is weird.

Getting Consumed

Let’s go back for a minute.  Do you remember the days when the primary way to find new music was the radio?  For decades, we cared about the top 40 – that is, the top 40 songs that were played on the radio, as chosen mainly by people who ran the stations.  The record companies and station managers largely dictated our taste in music.  They were right a lot of the time.  From the Beatles to Sinatra to Journey, they placed pop music in our ears that was worth hearing.  They also promoted some music that was not so great.  That’s radio – delivering popular products to a large consumer base.

Fast forward to this decade.  Radio is still around, but we have Pandora, last.fm, and hundreds of smaller internet radio options.  Those services still take on the job of curating and promoting music, most often by genre.  Although the range of options has expanded, the idea is the same: you will hear what somebody else thinks you will like – and what they think you will buy.

We’ve added deeper social connections to the process, too.  Now if I listen to a song on just about any online music service, my contacts on Twitter, Facebook, and other networks can see what I heard and click to listen themselves.  The addictive system is optimized for maximum consumption.

YouTube, MySpace, and related technologies have democratized music promotion a little bit.  It is now possible for a kid making music in his mom’s basement to become moderately well-known (like Adam Young of Owl City); however, the big labels are still heavily promoted, and the little guys with real talent are hard to discover.

So basically, it’s very difficult to find music that I like because I like it, and not because a company is trying to sell me something.

Learn More = Consume Less

When I first began really looking at the labels on the food I eat, the immediate effect was that I consumed fewer calories.  I never try to diet, and I still eat some junk, but simply knowing what is in the food I eat causes me to make conscious choices.

Music is similar.  A person without a good music education may happily listen to whatever music is in the environment.  When people truly don’t know about music, they can listen without listening.  They can consume without caring.  But as soon as they start to understand how music works, they cannot listen without noticing – and having a strong opinion about – certain components of every song.

For me, that means that much of the pop music my peers have adored over the years seems bland and formulaic.  After a very satisfying half hour listening to Brahms, it’s hard to turn around and try to enjoy Taylor Swift’s latest offering.  I suppose if you’re accustomed to eating handmade artisinal cheese, it’s really hard to go back to Velveeta.

That’s not to say that all people who know a lot about music end up liking the same music.  Whether it’s the Foo Fighters or Stravinsky, interesting music will always have educated critics and advocates.  But education always encourages the formation of an opinion, one way or the other.  There is no neutral ground.

That’s why the radio (analog or internet) is hard for me to consume: if I have time to listen to music, I want to choose what I hear.  The iTunes music library is already so vast that I cannot hear everything in it by the time I die.  Life is literally too short to waste with music that I find annoying or uninteresting.

The Real Reason

These frustrations are not the primary reasons why I don’t listen to music nearly as much as my students.  They are convenient excuses, but they don’t tell the real story.

I listen less because when I listen to others’ music, I am not creating my own.  This applies to the broader scope of creative experience: When you read, you are not writing.  When you watch videos, you are not creating them.  Consumption and creation do not generally happen at the same time.

I have students who claim they cannot do homework without listening to music or watching TV at the same time.  Conversely, when there is music playing, I cannot ignore it.  I may dislike it, but my mind must dissect it.  Analysis has become involuntary.  That is the biggest reason I must do all of my real work in silence.

One of my kids stuck the change from my ashtray into the tape deck in my car, and the resulting electrical problems rendered my radio useless.  That was about two years ago.  At first, I was annoyed at the inconvenience of having to fill long drives with my own thoughts instead of having them given to me over the air.  Now, I appreciate the rare solitude provided by my inability to tune in during my brief commutes.  I develop my best musical and poetic ideas when I am on a bicycle, but now my car is a close second, because I have to think for myself.

Music is more powerful than we acknowledge.  The next time one of my students asks What do you listen to?  I’m still not sure how I will answer.  But inside, I know what I will think:  Less is more.

May we all consume our media with a little more attention and intent, and a little less by accident.