A week ago I spent a long weekend with my friend Doug Moeller in Farmington. His wife of 52 years, Tyra, had succumbed to cancer after a long illness, the family had gone to their homes after the funeral, and Doug was left to his own devices. Renewal of an old and abiding friendship seemed called for.
For about nine years, Doug was the bishop of the same ward my father had served as bishop, the ward I grew up in. We went to church together that Sunday and as we entered the foyer the two sister missionaries standing there snapped to attention when they saw my long pony tail. Doug greeted them, pointed at me, and said: this man needs converting.
If you’re not busy being born you’re busy dying, I agreed, quoting Saint Bob Dylan.
For a concluding chapter of my Immortal For Quite Some Time, I recounted an earlier visit to this ward with Doug and Tyra, leading with Gary Snyder’s poem “I went into to the Maverick Bar / In Farmington, New Mexico.” As an environmental activist, Snyder was a stranger in the red-neck bar, but as the evening wore on he recognized a kinship with the “short-haired joy and roughness” of the people there.
As a non-practicing Mormon, I was again a stranger in the building I had helped build. And as I had on that previous visit, I soon found myself at home.
The sacrament meeting talks were given by two women, in their mid-forties perhaps, both of whom had been asked to talk about mental illness. They had written their talks and read from the typed pages. Quotations from Church leaders about mental illness alternated with scriptures. They emphasized the fact that mental illnesses are conditions requiring expert medical treatment. Each of them told a personal story about their family’s experience with, on the one hand, a little boy who incurred a brain injury, and on the other a teen-age son with depression so deep that he was hospitalized for a time. The stories were riveting accounts of great sorrow, of perilous and recurring fallbacks, of abiding love and care, of uncertain futures. They told how they learned to speak about events they had feared to share with others and of responses like “me too,” “yes, we know that anguish.” They described strength they received from their faith in God.
I listened intently, deeply admiring their wisdom, feeling what I would have, thirty years earlier, described as the Spirit of God washing over me. I wiped away tears.
Back at Doug’s house, I told him how moved I had been and tried, as best as I was able, to express my admiration for the people gathered in that ward house to seek and share the understanding that comes from shared experience. How fortunate, I said, to be a member of that congregation. How marvelous for me to “partake of that spirit.” I was not “a stranger or foreigner” today, even though I was not technically a “fellow citizen with the saints.” The spirit I felt was the same Spirit they were feeling, even as we called it different names.
And that brings me to my work at BYU—not exactly a fellow citizen due to my disbelief in God, a stranger, then, in the promised land—but for most of those eleven years very much engaged in the good work of my people, at home in the university that had fostered me as a young man.
Thank you, my friend, F. Douglas Moeller, standing in front of a small sample of your vast library of books dealing with religion, with religions, your study of them provoking, you told me, a young woman in the Gospel Doctrine class you were teaching to ask: did you used to be a Priest?