Building a Home

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Lately, themes of home–as a project, a problem, a possibility–have been echoing around my head. But considering my own pre-occupations, perhaps that’s not surprising.

Last Wednesday, our sewer line began to back up, spreading crappy (literally) water all over the basement. A neighbor, a fellow church-member and a very generous friend, spent a good chunk of his evening figuring out that it was an electrical problem, and getting the pump motor working again, thus restoring our sometimes doubtful belief that owning your own home is worth it. Then on Thursday I had dinner with a long-time community activist, and we talked a little about the politics of health care and immigration in Wichita, mostly we chatted about our kids, about how hard it is when you move around a lot and you don’t have a stable network of relatives or friends or teachers to help you out, and how valuable it is to finally be able to develop local ties with your children’s classmates and their parents. Then on Friday it was homecoming for Northwest High (which is just up the road from our house), and Megan, our oldest daughter, who plays the clarinet in the band for Wilbur Middle School (just across the run-off and down the street), got to march and play along with crowd. It was a gorgeous fall evening, and we sat in the bleachers under a rising full moon, as our two middle girls, Caitlyn and Alison, ran about to sit beside and talk with their friends and parents of their friends and teachers from Peterson Elementary (yep, that’s in walking distance too) who were in the crowd along with us. Then finally yesterday, in honor of Chusoknal, the Korean Thanksgiving, Melissa and I got out to a Manna Wok, a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant on the east side of town, where we ate some of the best Korean food I’ve had in years. The owners have been in Wichita for twenty-six years, and the restaurant, despite development all around them, had hung on for sixteen; every inch of the walls were covered with snapshots of regular diners, some of whom have apparently been coming back again and again for a decade or more.

All this, and it’s General Conference weekend for us Mormons. The same weekend as Sukkot, the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles, as observant Jews are building their sukkah in their homes as part of their worship services, Mormons worldwide are–assuming they’re equally observant–traveling to church buildings with satellite projectors, or crashing the homes of friends with cable television, or firing up their laptops, all tuning in to hear words of counsel from church leaders…in essence turning our ears towards our spiritual home.

A few years back, I wrote a blog post on Sukkot, in particular on its connection to notions of harvest, and finding security for oneself and one’s family after a season of labor and trial. While there is nothing directly related to Sukkot which makes an appearance in any form of Mormon belief and practice I’m aware of, that’s probably not for lack of desire. We Mormons have long had both an ambivalent and a longing relationship to the Jewish faith, with elements of its language and perspective–such as that which relates to ideas like “Zion” and “covenant”–popping up unexpectedly (and often unknowingly) in the lives of Mormons everywhere. In that post, though, I was kind of morose about the whole thing, expressing real doubt that Christians, even (or especially?) Mormon Christians, could ever properly, doctrinally, feel themselves as home in the world. Part of that, surely, was the frustrating search we were going through for a home of our own at the time, a frustration intensified by the fact that it was finally truly possible for us to buy a house, thus making every obstacle and set-back seem massive. But part of it, also, is the fact that at this time of year, when our faith’s semi-annual conference weekend rolls around, the degree to which ours is a church that has–in admittedly not all, but nonetheless in many key ways–aligned itself very much with modernity and the electronic, global media is basically unavoidable. Modern Mormonism has relatively little liturgy or ritual to tie its faithful into doing specific things in specific places at specific times–to a feeling of groundedness, physicality, and being at home–and that’s a loss, I think.

Rosalynde Welch, who is about as smart and careful a writer on Mormon matters as anyone I know, is a little more positive than I. In a column of hers which appeared today, she argues:

General Conference is the closest we [Mormons] get to a liturgical feast, a high point in our spiritual landscape and a time of renewal and rededication. It’s characteristically Mormon–and I say this with the greatest possible affection–that a pinnacle of our spiritual lives has such a prosaic name. But General Conference, arriving as it does together with the natural beauty of every autumn and spring, is indeed a beloved event for many Mormons….To some, the prospect of listening to a speech streamed online might not seem particularly transcendent. But for Mormons, the communication of shared spiritual knowledge is a form of worship; the experience of knowing together is a central part of our religious practice. And watching General Conference online provides an opportunity for members near and far to reconfirm that knowledge as one.

This bothers me, but not because I disagree with it, because mostly I don’t. I wouldn’t defend it as the most truthful description of modern American Mormon life possible, and I would dissent on theological grounds from calling “the communication of shared spiritual knowledge” a style of worshiping, but I can’t dispute its basically accurate account of how your typical American Mormon congregation (and many if not most Mormon congregations around the planet as well) likely responds to the call of conference. We are a faith that, these days anyway, has mostly packaged away the charismatic and visionary, instead discerning spiritual power in propositions and testimonies–which, of course, lend themselves to speeches, heard words that can be received in a spirit of confirmation: I know what I’m hearing is true; in this moment of hearing, I am feeling my place, I am taking my stand. And to the extent that such can be done in a crowd, then perhaps it really is a tool of building community, of building a home. Moreover, in the broad historical sweep of things, perhaps this move towards a kind of internal (yet shared?) dialogue of confirmation and witnessing is the safest way of cultivating individual dedication without risking schism: of balancing authority and individuality. I’m glad I don’t have to make such decisions myself (though to be honest I doubt many of those who do have that heavy responsibility often think about such things anyway). For myself, I prefer to develop a belief that draws such strength as it has from religious services and practices tied up with sacrament and service, performances that are either strictly liturgical or dependent entirely upon the idiosyncratic needs and lives of the parishioners amongst whom I live. Generally, these don’t conflict by my snarky desire to complain about the way many of my fellow believers will point with pride to a correlated system of instruction which will guarantee most visitors to most Mormon congregations on any given Sunday worldwide of hearing pretty much the same lessons being taught, as if that’s some sort of fabulous achievement (McDonald’s does the same thing, millions of times a day, and not just on Sunday), thus saving me from unnecessary crises of faith. I can generate enough of those on my own, thanks very much.

Before I get too snarky, though, I have to share Rosalynde’s concluding point:

Of course, worship always involves more than an act of communication; it is also a sensory and social experience that video can never fully replicate. So streaming video will never replace the experience of worshiping together during the rest of the year. No matter how capacious the broadband connection, it cannot transmit the warmth of a handshake, the space of a chapel, the taste of the sacramental bread and water. Those human-to-human connections will always be at the heart of Mormon religious practice–and of virtually all other cooperative religious endeavors, as well.

Which makes the same point I kind of snuck around to above, much more honestly. “The space of a chapel”–I like that. What is the desire to have a home, a hut, a land, of one’s own, after all, than the desire to have some space that will be filled with others, others with whom you can share something you love and want to share…knowing, somehow, that in sharing it (with children, with friends, with fellow citizens and saints) you’ll receive more and better as they all receive your gifts and include you in their giving the same? The children of Israel suffered and wandered and, when they found a homeland, had to fight for it and then struggle to make it fruitful and fully their own. Building a sukkah–a transitory, limited dwelling, just as everything we have, even our bountiful harvests and good meals and fine evenings are also temporary–is a way the Jewish people have of ritually acting out a sense of belonging and gratitude, one tied to a physical space, a home made by one’s own hands. To my great pleasure and surprise, I look around at neighbors and colleagues and Wichitans far and near, and I find that we’ve managed to make a bit of a sukkah for ourselves as well. A slightly more permanent one, to be sure (despite that sewer problem), but essentially just that: a place to retreat to, a home to turn to, as the seasons turn.

As a Mormon, General Conference, and the words of men and women I consider to be inspired, is part of that seasonal turning. Listening to a kind, elderly man speak wise and loving words over a satellite broadcast in a dark and mostly empty chapel this morning probably can’t on its own provide much sense of shelter or liturgical place–but as Rosalynde pointed out, it is, thankfully, only one part of the spiritual homes we build for ourselves. So long as we still have more human homes and places to be, with elementary schools and homecoming parades and friends knowledgeable in the ways of home construction and congregations of real people, such acts of mediated communication, for people of my particular faith, can only make the sukkah that much stronger, however long it lasts.


  1. Rosalynde Welch says:

    Russell, thanks so much for the shout out. And what a pleasure to see my post spun out into something so thoughtful and lovely. On the point you bring up—the religious meaning we attach to our rhetorical acts of jointly confirming knowledge—I have to say that my thinking was influenced by Terryl Givens in his fantastic piece “Lightning out of Heaven,” reproduced here: (ugly link, sorry).

  2. The way the “jointly confirming knowledge” was enacted on Twitter this conference was really something to behold. No, it’s no replacement for human-to-human connections. But #ldsconf was its own type of sukkah. I resisted it at first (and wasn’t on constantly — interaction with family during conference being the priority). But what a fascinating enactment of shared testimony and even more than that simple joy and even awe for the words that were delivered, and what a frenzy of connection making as LDS found each other and added each other to their networks. What’s more a couple of members created easy ways to follow what people were saying on Twitter about conference and others were diligent about weeding out spam. And the growth in activity and people participating from last conference is astounding. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next April.

    And here’s what gave it value over sitting in a dark chapel: there was more than just a nod and a handshake and some light conversation with a few platitudes on what a great session on the way out — observations, statements of testimony, quips, sidenotes, links to more info and technical help were shared and everything was pretty much on topic and even (dare I say?) genuine.

  3. This has helped me to give place to the thoughts in my head regarding what has long seemed to me a lack of ritual (at least church wide) in our homes compared to the Jewish faith. But the more I think about it I wonder if it is really just a “grass is greener” situation for me. I am beginning to see many of the traditions that have grown within families and congregations as being equivalent perhaps and that many of the actions that make us peculiar to outsiders are just as ritualistic as many of the traditions of various Jewish sects. I haven’t really studied it out in detail, but sometimes I wish for an outside perspective. Thanks for the thoughts on this topic.
    Last thought…is Gen. Conf. one of our very own “high holidays”?

  4. Rosalynde, thanks for the generous comment. And as for my praise of your piece, it was much deserved. I confess that I struggle a little with Givens’s analysis of Smith and the Mormon experience more broadly; I’m not sure he’s wrong, so much as I sometimes think he’s describing a Mormon belief and practice somewhat different from the one we are usually, officially, enjoined to participate in, and so I wonder how much of his writings to take as analysis and how much to take as critique. But that’s another post or paper there.

    William, I appreciate your willingness to speak out on behalf of Twitter! My semi-Ludditism is probably apparent from my post, and so hearing a ringing defense of the odd, interdependent sharing and norms which you saw evolving over the course of conference is probably good for me. I don’t Tweet, but Melissa does; perhaps next conference I’ll encourage her to check it out.

    Corktree, thanks for you thoughts and questions. I don’t know if General Conference is or should be a “high holiday” for us, in any sense. I’m more sympathetic to bringing the broader Christian tradition and its liturgy and holidays back to Mormonism, than creating our own, but perhaps that horse has already left the barn, and we just have to accept the practices we do have. And one of those practices, surely, is the multiple ways in which we all tend to the words of the prophets at General Conference time. So if it quacks like a duck, perhaps we should call it by its name…

  5. Probably good for you?

    There is a lot that’s superficial with Twitter and Facebook and, yes, even blogging. And one wonders about the strength (and the point) of the connections formed in such venues. Twitter was particularly well suited and effective in creating a shared experience around LDS conference because of its technical constraints and openness (140 characters, an open api) and ability to work well on many platforms (web, mobile, widgets, apps) and because it’s less about in-depth conversation and more about enriching the experience. And conference is well-suited for the Twitter treatment because it’s visually undistracting and focused on discourse and widely available (streams on, and ksl) and is compressed in to two days.

    I was quite surprised. But participating did enrich my experience. And oddly enough (because you’d think it’d just be distracting) it caused me to listen more carefully to what was being said.

    Of course, it helped that there were some amazing talks and moments this conference.

  6. Now that I think about it, “high holiday” doesn’t really fit the bill, but I do wish we had more sometimes….I guess I just have culture envy.

  7. I love Rosalynde’s column and descriptions and I love what you’ve written, as well. It’s made me look at conference more seriously. In an attitude of worship and reflection, like the Jews at Yom Kippur, sort of….just call me, annegb, future Jew for Jesus :)

  8. Thanks very much for your kind words, anne; I’m glad the combination of the two pieces spoke to you so well. And corktree, fear not; I often feel serious culture envy as well.

  9. Michael Godek says:

    As a convert from Catholicism to Mormonism, I have found that during the special times of the year, Lent, Easter, Christmas, the different “Feast”, there is a feeling of, “where is the celebration”. For example, during Lent, I would as a boy and teenager I would give something up for Lent. Like eating chocolate or playing TopGun (Nintendo), but I think that that similar rituals are practiced in our faith. Take Fast and testimony where we give up 2 meals, and the money we would have used, is given to take care of the poor and the fatherless (pure religion). I can not think of another faith that does this. Fasting makes a huge impact on those that need help. The feeling brotherly love and true charity will accompany anyone who would practice this ritual. For me Mormonism has its own rich legacy of rituals that help to strengthen and build the stakes of Zion.

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