Homeless

October 8, 2006 | 15 comments
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Yesterday was the first day of Sukkot, the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles, or Festival of Booths; the holiday continues for seven days, during which observant Jews will build and take some of their meals in, perhaps even sleep in, a sukkah, a small home within (or outside) their home. Unlike those Jewish holidays which hearken back to great moments of despair and deliverance, Sukkot is a simple occasion for celebration and feasting; while its primary inspiration is the tents which the Jewish people dwelt in during their sojourn in the wilderness in the days of Moses, it is also something of a Thanksgiving holiday, falling as it does during harvest time. And the truth is, I know of no other religious holiday that takes quite so seriously–and so joyously–the idea of having a home, a sheltered place, a secure refuge and a well-stocked storehouse, under God’s protecting hand. Not only is there no comparable Christian holiday, but I’m not even sure there could be.

If there is any single, overarching theological constant to all Jewish self-understanding, it might well be this: they are a remnant people, witness-bearers and sufferers, a chosen people who will endure as a reminder and a reproach to all the other inhabitants of the world for as long as the world endures. Much of this understanding was incorporated into Christian thought, especially amongst those movements–like our own–which sees the authentic Christian message as bound up with notions of covenant and peoplehood. The Mormons are not unique amongst Christians in using this “Jewish” language, but we certainly use it a lot more than most other denominations: our rhetoric is filled with invocations of our peculiarity, our royalness, our elect nature. But thinking about oneself as separate–”not of the world”–is only part of the Jewish story; one must also nonetheless be committed to the world–one must be, in a fundamental sense, “in” and part of it. And it is here where Christianity, Mormonism included, runs into trouble. For in the end, “worldliness” is that which is to be most avoided: we are to understand ourselves as “strangers and pilgrims,” living a life “that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” The most poignant, and simultaneously most hopeful, summation of the whole Christian creed is probably the Savior’s sad yet loving concluding words at the Last Supper, as recorded by John: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

Can the world simultaneously be something to be “overcome” and also something to be at home within? We can make a variety of distinctions in order to smooth out this possible contradiction: we can redefine “worldliness” so that it doesn’t have anything to do with the costs and complications of everyday life and work and ownership and commerce and relationships, and only condemns those things which are explicitly condemned by various commandments. Such a strategy can certainly work; historically, most Christian denominations have made use of it, our own included. But that approach only addresses issues that pertain to individual choices as they negotiate the world; it doesn’t help one in figuring out what it means to be, or if it is even possible to be, a Christian or a Mormon embedded, centered, at home within, this world.

Very broadly, one could argue that liturgical denominations–Catholicism and Orthodoxy–have done much more to develop theological responses to this problem, finding ways to identify various places, even various nationalities, with the Christian revelation, thus making one’s home also a sukkah, repository and refuge of holiness. Protestant denominations, on the other hand, have been more individualistic, and thus less interested in creating alternative, holy homes. This is too simplistic, of course (on the one hand, consider the radical Protestant movements of the Amish or Hutterites, and their determination to create separate, consecrated, collective homes; on the other hand, consider just how far the American Catholic church has fallen in recent decades from its old aspiration to provide alternative way of living and celebrating for its members), but there is some truth to it. But what about us–we neither-Catholic-nor-Protestant, restorationist, philo-Semitic, Zion-talking, temple-going, revelation-receiving Christians, we Mormons? Can we properly celebrate having a home in this world?

Well, I suppose we could celebrate and consecrate Thanksgiving, or any other harvest or homeland holiday we choose (hey, Korea-fans: it’s also Chusok this weekend!)…though some would suggest that in this, we American Mormons are merely piggy-backing on American Protestantism, and need to do more to make our own perspective clearer. Some others are dubious that any such perspective is even coherent: our Mormonism sets us apart from any world that isn’t of our own making, America included. There is the notion of Deseret of course…but in an international, correlated, satellite-uplinked church, the idea of a tight little Mormon sukkah, an established home that defines and covers us all, seems like a pretty distant ideal. Perhaps, to bang an old drum of mine, we need to come up with our own holidays. (December 23rd is still available, I hear.)

Well, this is pretty abstract stuff, I admit. Feeling joyous and grateful for one’s home in the spirit of Sukkot is primarily just a function of having one in the first place (and that can be hard enough to achieve, as we’re learning). If you have a home, a place to partake of one’s harvest, or even if you just have fond memories of such a home (or homeland, for that matter), then Sukkot has something to teach you. Even if it is the case that Mormon homes, like other Christian ones, ultimately need to be understood theologically as transitory ones, we can still take the Jewish celebration as source of inspiration. After all, they’ve been making their homes and building their sukkahs while on the move for a lot longer than we.

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15 Responses to Homeless

  1. Fregramis on October 8, 2006 at 1:21 pm

    I think it is interesting how eating and feasting are part of our holidays. I personally have grown to love this aspect more than the other formalities. As I grow older, nothing gives me more joy than to sit down and have some kind of banquet with my family or loved ones.

    Christ has often used the imagery of feasting as part of our communion with Him. Some of that will yet have literal fulfilment. The parable of the wedding feast, the Last (and the First) Supper, even the eagles gathered to the carcass to be nourished denotes the imagery.

    Perhaps we LDS folk could have some kind of formal meal on General Conference weekend. Obviously there is always mealtime on the Sabbath. However we could specialize the meal by starting with a bowl of bread and milk like Brother Joseph so enjoyed. Who knows? We are being spiritually nourished by the counsel of Church leaders. I say bring on the prime rib and taters.

  2. ECS on October 8, 2006 at 4:24 pm

    I love this post, Russell. I don’t have answers to the questions you pose, but they prompted me to ponder how all of us living are “remnant people”. Only with the mercy of Our Savior will our remnants and fragments find a way home and make us whole.

  3. Margaret Young on October 8, 2006 at 8:13 pm

    We had an interesting experience with clash of world and not-world last summer. My son went to scout camp. The YM president was driving 4 scouts to the campsite, and was playing “worldly” music (Nirvana). One of the young men–one we might call “peculiar”–said, “I don’t think this music is appropriate for our activity.” The YM president suggested they compromise and play some Nirvana and some Mormon Musak. By the time they reached the campsite, the peculiar young man’s mother had arrived–uninvited. She proceeded to rail at the YM president, and then she saw the ultimate heresy: one of the kids was wearing an AC/DC T-shirt. She knew that AC/DC was a satanic group and complained furiously to the bishop. The result was that within a week, all of the young men who were in that car (except the “peculiar” one) had made themselves AC/DC T-shirts. And my son stencilled “Metallica” beneath his stake-provided T-shirt, which already said “Got gospel?”

    I wonder how others would perceive this peculiar young man who was so ready to complain about the music. Would some suggest that he was the poster-boy for “For the Strength of Youth”? I felt genuinely sorry for him. He is being home-schooled and has barely a clue about getting along with his peers. I see him as an adult-pleaser, which is a dangerous thing in a child–even though we adults would often prefer it to what we usually get, which is teenagers openly plagued by their hormones. The adult-pleaser becomes homeless in many ways, because their restrictions are so rigid and the expectations so high. Many find it very difficult to be “at home” with others of their age group and have learned to judge them harshly and not accept their gifts easily.

    So, can we live joyfully in the world and yet not partake of the fatal pleasures offered by worldliness?

    My husband and I were talking about the Song of Solomon last night (in a very innocent setting). He argued that it was beautiful but not REALLY about the marriage of Israel and God. I argued the opposite–that it indeed celebrated the passion we should feel for God–what John Donne describes in “Ravish my heart, three-personed God.” I still think I’m right. Yes, the scriptures are replete with descriptions of feasts and marriage celebrations–all intimate connections with the world and each other’s flesh, and yet reminders of the sublime possibilities beyond this world.

    Given the obvious–that we will keep all passions within the prescribed bounds–can we really partake without inhibition of all that God has provided in the senses he has endowed us with? I believe we can and should, and that in partaking, we may worship. It’s the designation of “peculiar” which gets me. I want my children to be able to converse freely and intelligently with people of all cultures and religious persuasions, to not display their religions on their sleeves. I don’t want anyone putting away “cakes and ales” when my children enter a room. I want them to stand as witnesses of God, but to do so as Jesus did–by listening to others outside our culture and by understanding that we are not the only guests at Lord’s supper.

    Incidently, my children love Passover, which we celebrate every Easter Sunday, complete with a beautiful haggadah. I love preparing the feast, and I love reciting the scriptures which accompany it. I love tasting the bitterness of slavery, the sweetness of work, and the bread of haste. It is deeply spiritual as well as delicious.

  4. Julie M. Smith on October 8, 2006 at 8:33 pm

    Margaret, I’m torn between joining you in criticizing a mother for creating a ‘not-world’ for her children and pointing out that the young man in your post couldn’t have been too much of an adult pleaser if he was willing to criticize his YM leader. I’m far enough out of it (whatever ‘it’ is) that I have no idea whether Nirvana’s music is genuinely objectionable; I suppose that info would help me answer your question as to whether this boy would look good on a poster. I bristle at way-out-of-line homeschoolers (which, in my opinion, this mother clearly is) because, frankly, they make the rest of us look bad, but I also think that despite her lunacy on the T-shirt issue, she couldn’t be doing that good of a job brainwashing him if he had the chutzpah to call a church leader on the carpet. I am trying to raise children who would not critize (or even care much about) what is written on someone else’ t-shirt, but I’d be thrilled if I ended up with kids who didn’t assume that if a ranking church member does it, it must be OK.

    My children love passover, too–it is one of the best teaching opportunities we have each year and it makes me wish we Saints were better at teaching through untraditional media, such as food rituals.

  5. Jim F. on October 8, 2006 at 10:44 pm

    Julie: teaching through untraditional media, such as food rituals

    I have a nit to pick: food rituals aren’t untraditional. Indeed, they are perhaps the most common of all rituals across cultures. And we, too, have food rituals, though few that rank with the Passover meal. There is, of course, the Sacrament; and we bless our food (what is that about?); we eat certain foods at particular times of the day rather than others (there isn’t any particular logic to that arrangement); some foods are designated for special occasions (such as birthday cakes, and toasts at weddings). I could go on and on, but I’ll not. Needless to say, we are surrounded by food ritual.

  6. Margaret Young on October 8, 2006 at 11:11 pm

    Julie–hope I didn’t sound like I was bashing home-schoolers. Not only do I have the greatest admiration for many I’ve met, but my brother depends on them for his income. He sells language courses primarily to home schoolers. And to be honest, right now my son is having such a hard time in public school that in many ways, I’m home schooling him–adjusting the curriculum to his learning style and supplementing wherever I can.

  7. Julie M. Smith on October 8, 2006 at 11:15 pm

    Jim, I meant untraditional to us as Saints. The sacrament is a major exception, of course, but other than that . . .

    Margaret, you didn’t sound like you were bashing homeschoolers. I was just, as I said, halting between two opinions regarding your assessment of that boy.

  8. Russell Arben Fox on October 9, 2006 at 2:44 pm

    Margaret,

    “So, can we live joyfully in the world and yet not partake of the fatal pleasures offered by worldliness?…Given the obvious–that we will keep all passions within the prescribed bounds–can we really partake without inhibition of all that God has provided in the senses he has endowed us with? I believe we can and should, and that in partaking, we may worship. It’s the designation of ‘peculiar’ which gets me. I want my children to be able to converse freely and intelligently with people of all cultures and religious persuasions, to not display their religions on their sleeves. I don’t want anyone putting away ‘cakes and ales’ when my children enter a room. I want them to stand as witnesses of God, but to do so as Jesus did–by listening to others outside our culture and by understanding that we are not the only guests at Lord’s supper.”

    Your comment makes use of a different way of understanding of being “at home” than my post did; maybe a better understanding, since my post was pretty vague anyway. My first reaction is to ask you: don’t you think Jesus pretty explicitly did wear His religion on His sleeve? What do you mean by “displaying” religion anyway? I don’t see why “listening to others outside our culture and…understanding that we are not the only guests at [the] Lord’s supper” would be in any way necessarily compromised by our declining to make ourselves–our whole Mormon selves–”at home” in any given context. Are the Amish prevented from loving others by their commitment to being very much themselves, in how they live and dress and eat and worship and shop? Perhaps they are…but is that really a result of their own actions and statements, or is it the result of their (secretly guilty?) interlocutors, who see the Amish and assume that these folks are necessarily judging them, condemning them, by their way of life?

    Now, there is one way in which your point is perfectly true: if making a Mormon home for ourselves means sealing ourselves off from the world, recreating it within Utah Valley, say, and never leaving to go elsewhere and never inviting anyone else to visit, then obviously we won’t be able to “converse freely and intelligently with people of all cultures and religious persuasions,” for the simple reason that we won’t ever meet any of those other cultures or religions. And perhaps, therefore, the Amish are a bad model; they’ve taken their peculiarity too seriously, having turned it into obstacle in the way of their potential to share what they have with others and similarly learn from others. But this then brings us back around to the Jews. The Jews around the world this week observing Sukkot live right next door to you, in cities and suburbs and communities cheek and jowl with Christians and atheists and all the rest. And yet they still build their sukkahs, and no, they usually don’t invite any of their neighbors in with them. Pretty darn peculiar, I’d say. And yet, still visible, still part of the world. I don’t know if anything Mormon, much less anything Christian, can balance that sort of judgment of the world with resident in it, but it certainly shows that “wearing your religion on your sleeve” doesn’t exactly render you an automatic party-pooper wherever you go.

  9. Margaret Young on October 9, 2006 at 3:29 pm

    Great points, Russell. I didn’t phrase my ideas well, I’m afraid. (I was writing it while Bruce and I were involved in some paperwork and didn’t give either process my full attention.) When our religion becomes an excuse for self-righteousness or judgment of others (smokers etc.), then it is “wearing it on our sleeves” in a way that the Savior did not. There are wonderful nuances I’d love to discuss. Sorry I don’t have more time to devote to the conversation right now.

  10. Marjorie Conder on October 10, 2006 at 8:47 pm

    I would like to return to the original post on the Feast of Tabernacles or Sukkot.
    Last Fall two events converged for me. First I was carefully reading Robert Alter’s Five Books of Moses. And second because of dramatically increasing hip pain (which resulted in a hip replacement in November) my husband needed genuine help harvesting his garden.

    For many years I have been slowly developing a “Mormon liturgical calendar.� (Which I would love to share some time if you are interested.) I was just starting to consider doing a Feast of Tabernacles celebration but the logistics eluded me. So we had a quickly cobbled together “harvest festival� celebration on the correct Feast of Tabernacles day (coinciding with the first full moon after the autumnal equinox.) With the help of our children and grandchildren, my husband’s rather large garden (including lots of potatoes) and apple and pear trees were energetically harvested and cleared in about an hour. Then we lit a wonderful bonfire and roasted hotdogs and marshmallows supplemented with other things the children brought. Not very Biblical but we all had a great time and everyone wanted to do it again this Fall. (However, there was a huge downpour that night this year.—What did the Jews do when that happened???) I did share what little bit I knew about Feast of Tabernacles. Some of my family are very intrigued by the idea.

    As I read the books of Moses in the Old Testament, The Feast of Tabernacles is clearly the most important of the three major festivals of the year (Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacle.) For the Jews anciently and today it is clearly the most important and solemn ceremony of the year. I was puzzled at what could be more important to commemorate than the Resurrection? As I started following references through, I now think that Feast of Tabernacles looks to the Second Coming in the same way that Passover looked to Christ’s First Coming. I think it is no accident that these two grand festivals (Passover and Tabernacles) work their way around the first of April and the first of October on lunar calendars. These are also the times and seasons of General Conference (since 1838.) It may also be why you are supposed to be outside in your \”hut\” watching the sky.

    In the Bible the Feast of Tabernacles starts on a somber note, but ends in rejoicing. The times leading to the Second Coming will be somber indeed, but Christ’s coming will be a high point of worshipful joy for the righteous. It is after all “the Great and Dreadful Day of the Lord!� Tabernacles is the one Jewish festival announced with a blast from the ceremonial ram’s horn. The ram’s horn has two main uses; 1—a call to arms and 2—announcing a coronation. It was at the Feast of Tabernacles six months before his death that Jesus first publicly proclaimed his identity. (See John 7-8). It also seems likely (from Clark’s chronology in Our Lord of the Gospels that Tabernacles was the event Jesus was in Judea for at the time he was baptized and John proclaimed His Messiahship. Tabernacles is also a very public celebration, whereas Passover is for family and friends (and strangers). Tabernacles is also apparently the only Old Testament feast to still be a required celebration after the Messiah comes. (See Zechariah 14: 16-21)

    So, I think that while we do not know the day nor the hour or even the year of Christ’s coming, we do know the season. I have lots more to learn on this but for now our family at least acknowledge it, full moon and all!

    And finally, just a word about who I am. I am a friend and colleague of Nate’s father. Richard introduced me to this site several months ago and I have hung out on it as much as I do anything on the Internet (which isn’t much.) But with what time I have spent here, I have been absolutely taken with the intelligence and civility of the participants. This is also the very first site I have ever responded to. I might also say that I suspect I am old enough to be the mother of most of you. (My oldest son is ten years older than Nate.) Anyway, thanks for letting me have my say on this evolving and important issue to me.

  11. Nate Oman on October 10, 2006 at 9:15 pm

    Thanks for your comments Marge…

  12. Jim F. on October 10, 2006 at 9:21 pm

    Marjorie Conder: Thanks for your participation–and don’t be intimidated by the young ‘uns. There are a few of us old folks here, too.

  13. Sarah H on October 11, 2006 at 7:59 am

    I have never responded before, but I feel that I must this time. I believe that saying that this *peculiar* boy cannot interact with those of other cultures and beliefs is a strange comment when he was clearly reacting to those he felt shared his beliefes…that is why he felt the need to comment on the innapropriate nature of the music…he felt thet because they shared the same beliefs that what offended him might offend the others as well. I obviously cannot know for sure, but I feel safe to assume that if he was in a nonmembers car and the music was playing that he would be more tolerant of the music. I am sure that as adults we have all been in situations where others were doing something we felt was offensive, but we would not comment unless we felt that the offender should know better. This young man showed geat courage to stand up for what he felt was right when he felt the TM leader should know better. I am not saying that he is right (some of Nirvana is offensive, while some is not) but I do not think that because he is secure enough in his testimony that he should be labeled negatively (and arent we supposed to be a *peculiar* people?). Also, because we covenant at baptisn to take upon us the name of Christ, shouldnt we wear our religion on our sleeves? I am afraid that too many church members today are trying to *fit in* too much. We need not become mainstream. We need to set a higher standard so that the world sees us as different, and therefore has an example to follow. I know that this is not the main topic of this thread, but I felt that it needed to be said.

  14. Marjorie Conder on October 11, 2006 at 12:18 pm

    I agree with Sarah. No point being self-righteous about this, and I don’t think Sarah was–just holding the banner higher. I liked the suggestion in General Conference just past that we would be better off if we all sold our *summer cottages in Babylon.* (Speaking of housing and huts and such.)

  15. Jen Jolley F. on November 3, 2006 at 8:24 pm

    Hello Russell- I googled my dad and found your blog :). Its your long lost cousin Jennifer. Just wanted to say hello and let you know I enjoyed your posts on Grandpa and Grandma. Take Care- Jennifer