Sunday, September 26, 2021

Frozen Faith

Shortly after Jack and I were married we faced the decision of where he would attend graduate school, and set out to tour the colleges on our list. 

One trip, to Ithaca New York, had me particularly excited. I had never been to New York, and even higher on my bucket list than the Big Apple was a little town in upstate called Palmyra. In my faith, Palmyra is considered a sacred place, and central to our understanding of Jesus Christ. I realized we would be staying just about 70 miles away, and added an extra day to the itinerary.

The morning of our tour we woke to what we would later learn was the worst ice storm New York had seen in over ten years. Flights were grounded, roads closed, and travel advisories flashed across every station on the TV. We would have to be idiots to attempt the drive. 

Which is exactly what we were. Against our better judgement and the stern admonishment of the front desk clerk at the hotel, we loaded up the rental car and hoped for the best.

It was the worst. 70 miles of white knuckling, sliding on black ice and wondering what our life insurance beneficiary would do with their meager payout. Three hours later, somehow, we arrived in one piece.

The site, referred to as the Sacred Grove, was deserted. Not a single car in the parking lot. We walked around and knocked on one of the little log homes, and an elderly guide opened the door. I have visited plenty of historical church sites in my life, and this was for sure the first time I was greeted with, "What are you doing here?"

He said that for the first time as far as he was aware, the Sacred Grove was deemed too dangerous for visitors, and closed. 

And that was that. Rather than spending our much-anticipated visit among the beautiful grove of trees, we got to spend about twenty minutes standing in the parking lot, looking at it from across a field. 

I had seen depictions of the Sacred Grove my entire life, and imagined what this moment would be like. Our visit was in April, which was serendipitous. Surely it would be warm, with streaming rays of light brightening my path. The leaves I imagined would be every shade of green with just enough wind to make them dance. I was certain there would be butterflies. 

Instead I huddled, shivering, in a cement parking lot with the view of a frozen gray storm. Every few minutes a branch would crack under the enormous weight of ice and crash to the ground. My fingers were numb, and I dreaded the drive back. 

According to every circumstance, I should have felt disappointed by the failure of my one and only opportunity. But as I watched those falling branches I instead felt an overwhelming, reassuring feeling of peace and happiness that belied my surroundings. To this day it remains one of my most treasured memories. 

Faith for me never has been the result of circumstance or logic. I learned then and life has confirmed since that faith is what steps in when circumstances fail.

The sun rarely shines down in perfect rays, and butterflies have yet to dance around my head. But when it's gray and cold and I can't feel my fingers, faith in Jesus Christ has been the compensating force that makes bad days better, rough relationships smoother, and even the most unsettling routes somehow worth the journey.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Good Vibes at Valley Forge

My mother’s side of the family are Danas. This is a heritage, I was taught growing up, that brings with it some notable claims to fame. 

Take my great uncle Danny Herrera, for instance, who invented the margarita (true story). He first concocted it in the late 1940's at Rancho La Gloria, his resort in Mexico, where my mom would visit in the summer as a child. To this day my cousins and I all wish each other a Happy National Margarita Day every February 22nd, although as sober Latter-day Saints most of us have never actually tried one.   

Another source of Dana pride is that my grandfather Joe Dana, after whom I and my daughter are named, once fired his gun at an approaching bear who went down on the first shot. Though it was clearly dead, no bullet hole could be found until the taxidermist discovered that it had gone in one ear and out the other. If you don’t believe me, the skin was turned into a rug that has been passed around the family for decades and can currently be found in my sister Jane’s guest room closet. 

But the family lore that made me proudest was that this same grandfather was lifelong friends with the great artist Arnold Friberg, and was the inspiration for the physical build of George Washington when he painted his magnum opus, Prayer at Valley Forge. 

The physique of Grandpa Joe in this painting is unmistakable, particularly the unique size and shape of his hands. 

The president of Friberg Art once recalled a time that the painting was lying on the floor of a printer’s studio when a security guard passed by. He studied it for some time then said, “You feel the prayer in his hands. He got it.” 

I couldn’t agree more. 

George Washington is typically portrayed in heroic fashion and rightfully so, looking like the father of our nation that he is. In my textbooks in school I remember he was always shown overlooking a victorious battlefield, or on the back of a charging horse, or proudly presenting the Constitution. 

But in Prayer at Valley Forge, he is at his lowest. Frozen, defeated, and no doubt weighed down by the responsibility of leading his equally frozen and defeated troops to safety. Fallen to his knees, in a moment of desperation, he pleads with God for help.

Friberg’s Washington looks humble. Prayerful. And by 2021 standards, perhaps a little controversial.  

I wonder, what if modern social media scrutiny existed in 1778, and someone hiding in the snow captured this moment and uploaded it to Twitter. What sort of debate would it spark? Could it have hurt his chances of becoming president years later? 

Possibly. Prayer certainly didn’t help Mike Pence in matters of public opinion while serving in the White House.  Last year, during a meeting of the coronavirus task force, he led the group in prayer. Someone snapped a picture that went viral and triggered a stampede of criticism.  

“You can’t pray this away,” someone Tweeted. “We are so screwed,” wrote another. Honestly, the general consensus of reactions reminded me of Nacho Libre’s sidekick Esquelito when he said, “I don’t believe in God. I believe in science," which, by the way, was supposed to be funny. Isn't there room to believe in both?

I don't think Mike Pence was praying to escape his responsibility in the pandemic any more than George Washington was praying as a strategy to avoid confronting the British. I believe that prayer is a component of our efforts, not an alternative to them.

I love the way Pope Francis put this when he said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That is how prayer works.” 

I think there can be a place in the political sphere for prayer without blurring the lines between church and state, the separation of which is one of our greatest freedoms. Prayer is an incredibly encompassing term. There are limitless possibilities of how a person might pray or to what source, and protections for those who choose not to pray at all. One of the primary tenets of my own faith is the privilege of worshiping according to our own conscience, and allowing others the same - “let them worship how, where or what they may.” 

I just wonder though, how prayer went from a natural expression and condolence we offer one another, to an awkward question of whether offense might be taken. Why people on social media are far more likely to send or solicit “thoughts and good vibes” than they are prayer. 

When you Google "sending prayers," in fact, several of the top search results are lists of alternative phrases you can use that omit the word prayer altogether. Because heaven forbid.

Still, in spite of all the noise, I believe that Prayer at Valley Forge is timeless. I don't know what Washington said in that moment of desperation, but the closest comparison of my lifetime was twenty years ago, watching an equally desperate President Bush address the nation of the evening of September 11th.

I remember sitting on the couch of my apartment in a dreamlike state, haunted by the images I had seen that day, and only beginning to understand how the world and my perception of it had changed. I couldn't imagine the weight on President Bush's shoulders. No amount of eloquence in his address would have been enough to comfort Americans that night. No call for vengeance or promise to rebuild sufficient.  And so he said - 

Today our nation saw evil - the very worst of human nature - and we responded with the best of America.

Tonight I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve, for the children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose sense of safety and security has been threatened. And I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us.” 

Two decades later and more than two centuries after Valley Forge, we are still at times witness to the worst of human nature. And when we are, I'm grateful for a "power greater than any of us," and for the right to say God bless America, and mean it.

A Brother Like No Other

(Written by my mother Susan Foutz, who would like to clarify that she actually has two brothers like no other ) If you lived in Arizona in t...