11.08.2015

Seismic Shift.



A week ago tonight I was lying in bed at 11:30 pm, jotting a note to a friend before turning out the light when suddenly our newly installed pocket doors began rattling. A strange, simultaneous rumble went up from somewhere outside. I wasn't sure what it was, although it didn't really sound like thunder. As quickly as I could wonder what was going on in the other side of the house where everyone was asleep, the mattress began to hop and roll, and I realized with an Aha! that this is what an earthquake feels like. It wasn't a big earthquake, just enough to make the pictures hang crooked and cause me to sit up in my pajamas and say out loud, "What on earth...?!"

When the next one rumbled through twenty minutes later, I knew from the telltale rattling of those doors precisely what it was. I didn't even pause in my typing.

It's been a tough few days in Mormonland, as we've experienced a bit of a collective What on Earth in the form of policy changes to the handbook regarding the children of same-sex marriages, and an accompanying shift in our official definition of apostasy. But you know all of that. It's no surprise that there's been a flood of members' reactions running the gamut from defensiveness to bewilderment to heartache to resignation of church memberships.

But curiously, I haven't noticed a lot of what I would describe as outrage. What I have noticed instead is sadness. Many of our members are expressing feelings of real pain as a result of these changes.

I've felt sad about it myself, also hopeless, and I've thought a lot about why that is. I don't have a horse in this race, so to speak, by which I mean merely that no one at my own dinner table is personally affected by these changes. My larger, metaphorical dinner table is a different story, however, as I do have close friends for whom this constitutes a direct hit. So that hurts.

But even more than that, I think my sadness, hopelessness and accompanying frustration stem from the fact that no matter how many times I turn this new policy over in my mind, it still causes me to sit up in bed in my pajamas and say out loud, "What. On. Earth."

I just can't square it with anything I know or understand about Jesus Christ, whose name is on the door. It doesn't make sense, and I like things to make sense.

I've listened to Elder Christofferson more than once, hoping I'll catch a glimpse of something, but it eludes me. The analogy to polygamy doesn't hold water for a lot of reasons, just one being that polygamists aren't members of the Church. It's pretty unlikely that a polygamous couple is going to show up asking to have their baby blessed or their children baptized. That's not at all outside the realm of what I'd expect from the parents or grandparents of a child living with same-sex parents, however. I'm pretty sure that happens all the time, because these families live in our wards and around our dinner tables.

The idea of the policy being designed to protect these children from the challenges inherent in hearing teachings at church that continually contradict the reality of their home life also makes no sense to me. In fact, I reject that idea completely. For one thing, I'm guessing a pretty good percentage of the children in most Primaries are regularly subjected to teachings that they can't quite square with what they see going on at home.

Just today I attended a regional broadcast in which there were numerous conflicting ideas presented, within single talks! Anyone in the habit of paying attention to our church speakers and thinking at all about what they're hearing is bound to encounter those things just about every Sunday. My lifetime of Mormonism has subjected me to 52 years of cognitive dissonance that has at times been deafening. Suffice it to say, I have a big shelf and I keep a lot of things on it. And I happen to know I'm not alone.

But I'm not sure I can find a way to quietly shelve this particular item.  

There. I said it.

I saw a gorgeous movie from Finland this week called The Fencer, set in early 1950's Estonia during the Stalin years. It depicted a predictably grim place, but the reason I bring it up here is that the social construct of the time was one of extreme and generalized distrust. Before the screening the filmmaker spoke to us, prefacing his movie by describing to the audience the way the people of that time and place interacted with each other -- they were completely guarded, every meeting an uneasy dance in which each person tried to get a feel for whether or not the other was on the right side and should be trusted. In the film, our hero eventually ended up being turned over to the secret police, to be carted off to Siberia. But the scene in which the betrayal occurs is curiously devoid of emotion. The man who betrays his coworker says something to the effect that, "I'm just playing my part. I'm just doing what's expected. This is what I'm meant to do." And not only does the protagonist not blame him, the audience can't really blame him either. You don't expect him to question a society in which he must be wholly focused on his own survival, no matter how twisted right and wrong have become. And he doesn't.

A Hollywood version might have had the man experience a change of heart and decide to do the right thing. Perhaps the two of them would even have escaped the police together. But in this film, I didn't really expect that kind of ending, and I didn't get it.

I bring this up because in this current Mormon episode, people have behaved pretty much the way I thought they'd behave too. The Church has handled it in the way I've come to expect -- I saw a carefully choreographed video "interview" between a PR person and an apostle who was chosen, I believe, specifically because he is seen as friendly to the "cause," having a gay brother to whom he has remained close. I'm uncomfortable at what feels like that attempted manipulation. With the kind of potential hurt and sadness in such a change, I'd have felt better if I'd seen the Prophet himself just step up to a mic and explain What On Earth They Were All Thinking. I know, the Prophet is in failing health. But it's also become plain we don't operate that way. In fact, we increasingly seem to operate more like a slick corporate entity than anything else. And that's about all that was clear in the brief video we were given as an official response.

It was around 4th grade that I specifically remember beginning to awaken to what I can best describe as Big Ideas for Grownups...things that I'd catch glimpses of that would make me feel like I was on the brink of understanding the universe in new and important ways. Ideas that seemed to me like secret passages to the next level. They were mainly silly things, looking back, but I consumed them greedily. It was as if I was on a treasure hunt, delighted by any clues that could help me better understand where I should be headed next.

One of those I remember most distinctly came in the form of this well-known verse by Edwin Markham:

Outwitted

He drew a circle that shut me out --
     Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
     We drew a circle that took him in!

I don't remember where I came across it, but how I loved this little verse! I jotted it in margins of papers, I rehearsed it in my mind as I walked home from school. Something about it seemed so simple but profound. As if possessing this one secret might give me a leg up on all the competition as I struggled to navigate the social structures I found increasingly baffling and intimidating.

Here was a strategy I could actually use.

It still seems simple to me. But I don't see this most simple of Christ-like strategies anywhere in the blueprint of the Church's new policy changes. Yes, there are definitely lines being drawn, but they are the first kind rather than the second.

I'm trying to think of a time in the scriptures when we see Christ draw that kind of line around himself. He seems to be the one in the situation who is forever grabbing the stick and patiently enlarging the circle in the dirt to include whomever is standing nearby. He doesn't ask a lot of questions or lay down a lot of conditions first. He doesn't do an uneasy dance in which he tries to figure out which side the other person is on. He just invites everyone. And then he invites us again.

There is, of course, not a thing I can do about it all. I know, many of my Mormon friends would tell me to pray about it and I can receive a confirmation of the Spirit that these changes are indeed Christ's intended direction for His church. Many would suggest that I fall in line and do what I'm expected to do. That's becoming the climate, as near as I can tell -- I find myself increasingly in situations where Mormons tell other Mormons that sustaining the Brethren means trusting that they always speak on God's behalf, accepting what they say without question, or praying ourselves into agreement. 

But I don't believe that's what God intends for us. In fact to me, that idea has more in common with a different plan.

So in the interest of silencing some of my own cognitive dissonance, I've decided to change my personal approach. Rather than sitting in the discomfort of implied agreement by fearing to express the ways in which I struggle or even disagree with some of the things I hear, I can question those things, including the ones from Church leaders, and even openly disagree while continuing to sustain them. After all, I sustain them by showing up on Sunday, and by trying to follow Christ. By trying to ensure that my neighbors' lives are better as a result of their association with me, a Mormon, and by contributing to my congregation and looking after those over whom I have direct stewardship in my family and my callings. Those things are my responsibility as a member of the Church.

I do not have a responsibility to agree.

And what I would hope for in other Mormons is an increase in empathy, and an enlarging of our collective hearts and circles. Not silent acceptance of policies (these are policies after all, not gospel principles) that we feel may have the potential to alienate and cause pain or spiritual harm.

What's the anti-terrorism saying? If you see something, say something. It's a good policy for safeguarding spiritual health and well-being, too. God already knows our hearts. Our silence isn't protecting us in ways that actually benefit us at all.

I'm perfectly capable of drawing my own lines. I don't need anyone to draw them for me. And more importantly, I'm beginning to understand that it's vital to my continued spiritual health and growth to express that out loud when I need to. So I just did. Talk about seismic shifts.

Please don't feel like you need to come in and straighten my crooked pictures. I'm still standing, and in exactly the same place. But growth and progress require movement, and to that end I think it's time I finally, finally got comfortable with the sound of my own rattling doors.

- S.

11.26.2014

Ahem.


If the talk turns to Thanksgiving, one of my daughters will invariably tell you the story of the time we were forced to eat Thanksgiving dinner in a McDonald’s. I think it sticks out in her childhood as being so glaringly the way it isn’t supposed to be, she just can’t help herself. Of course the part of the story she doesn’t tell you (without being prodded with a glare and an *ahem* from her mother) is that we were at that McDonald’s because we were going to Disneyland the next day, our flight had landed late on Thanksgiving evening and there wasn’t a thing in the world open. So we went to McDonald’s.

To me, that’s always seemed like a rather large part of the story to leave out. But for some reason, it’s not the first thing that comes to her mind.

That’s probably the way it is for God most of the time, too. He’s probably resisting the urge to glare and ahem at us all day long. We’re forever telling our stories and leaving out the parts that, to Him, seem rather important. We focus on the small bits that itch or chafe, irritate or trip us up instead of on the big picture in which it probably all fits pretty comfortably because things make a lot more sense.

I’m guessing that’s human nature, but it’s probably also a function of not having a very clear view of the big picture most days. We see minutes ahead and behind. If we squint hard, days. Whole years don’t tend to stay clear in our sight and an entire lifetime, taken at once, is really a blur when you’re running to the next stop. So it’s those minutes that seem wrong or hurt us that we remember. The sharp little pebbles in our shoes.

This Thanksgiving I’m going to find myself in Panama, at a beach resort, without all of my children. I’ve got two with me, but of course my thoughts are equally with the one who’s not here. Plus I can’t help wondering why on earth my life has taken me to Panama and yet continues asking me to feel at home. And why being together with my husband has become a luxury rather than the mundane. And why it seems like it’s been years since I’ve cooked a good ol’ Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by a large noisy crowd of the people I love.

I find myself with plenty of pebbles in my shoes these days, and yet if I stop to consider the whole story, my life is remarkably sweet indeed.

I’ve got a large cast of amazing characters in the drama, for one thing. Some have joined recently that I can’t imagine ever having gotten along without. I seem to keep encountering those types, and while they don’t replace the ones I’ve not been allowed to keep in an active role, they show up miraculously knowing their lines and keep the holes from gaping. I love more people than I ever imagined I could. Even if I can’t seem to get everyone in the roles I’d really like them to have, everyone does their parts so well, and usually right on cue. It all suggests that Someone Else must be directing my whole production.

I’ve got good health, and I get to run and walk and eat and worry and write about it all – basically, do the things I love to do – to my heart’s content.

I’ve got starkly beautiful desert taking my breath away daily out one window, and a gorgeous, teeming jungle to explore out the other. It’s all much more than I deserve.

My dad gently suggested to me the other day, right when I most deserved to hear it, that happiness isn’t having everything but rather believing that you do. Something like that.

Of course, it was the kind of thing that can make a kid roll her eyes but as usual, my eye roll was because he was exactly right. And he should know, since at this late stage I do believe he’s got that figured out. He’s completely satisfied with his McDonald’s meal, even if it falls on Thanksgiving. He never seems to forget there’s also been Disneyland, and he’s remembering to say thanks every day just for being allowed to be in the scene with any of his supporting cast around at all.  

He’s probably still looking at me wondering if I’ll ever actually get the story right, and it’s a valid concern. So I’ll just keep telling it in hopes that someday I do. 

-S.

11.07.2014

Warp Speed


A friend from our old ward shared a post on my Facebook page recently with a quote from Chieko Okazaki. She explained it by saying, "This is for you. Thanks for helping me know it's okay to have questions."

She's a somewhat recent convert, to whom I was not close. In fact, I'd served in the stake and hardly been a presence in our ward at all since she joined the Church. I've enjoyed getting to know her a bit more by observing her pics and posts on Facebook since we moved away. I know more about her now than I ever did when we lived in the same ward. But I guess she's read my blog, and something I've written must have been a help.

Anyway, at first her note made me very happy. Then it made me a bit sad.

I was sad to think that I have been any kind of lifeline for her. I, who moved away two years ago, not that long after she joined. Whom she hardly knew, and has barely ever interacted with. It made me sad for the missed opportunity, of course, but also for the fact that I've given her hope yet feel that I've done almost nothing.

Which means it's pretty simple to make the way easier for others in the Church. And as members, having covenanted at baptism to bear one another's burdens, why wouldn't every one of us want to do that?

That's why when these Chieko quotes pop up on Facebook, so many of my friends seem to rejoice. It doesn't take much.

That's why when Pres. Uchtdorf speaks at conference and shares his open door and his wisdom with even a hint of a fresh slant and candor, it feels like a way out of the mire. We grab it greedily and begin looking immediately for more.

Because it doesn't take much.

That being said, it's a fascinating time to be a Mormon. The changes are happening, and they're happening fast. We're moving at the speed of the internet. I go to sleep at night, and when I wake up and log on it's clear that I'm the only one who slept. I feel like we're all on the bridge and Capt. Kirk has just ordered warp speed.

There's plenty of Church talk these days about "hastening the work." I'm not really sure what that means, but I feel we've got to hasten everything in order to just keep pace.

The Church's CIO recently shared interesting demographic statistics about our current makeup. He said if we were to think of the Church as a ward with 100 members:
  • 48 would live in the United States or Canada
  • 36 would live in Latin America
  • 3 would live in Europe
  • 3 would live in Africa
  • 3 would live in Oceania
  • 7 would live in Asia
  • 48 joined after The Proclamation was written (first read by President Gordon B. Hinckley on Sept. 23, 1995).
  • 79 joined after the revelation on the priesthood in 1978

So - 1) We're really young. 

(It's official, I'm one of the older members of this ward. I do, after all, still call it "the new hymnbook." I also know the term "Sacrament Gem." Which, incidentally, I always thought was "Sacrament Gym", an understandable mistake for a child growing up in a church where basketball seemed to be as important as anything else that went on at a ward building. Ahem.)

And - 2) We're not all living in Utah.

How can we be expected to think in the same ways?
Or to hear in the same ways?
Or to obey in the same ways?

Outside of our most core doctrines, there's got to be a good deal of tolerance for personalization of our understanding, and our approach to assimilating gospel principles into our daily lives. Because many of our daily lives barely resemble each other's.

Hastening has got to include an acceptance of those differences and a willingness to embrace the fact that this is no longer your grandfather's church. Nor mine.

Gospel principles may be timeless. But the Church exists here and now. And we're here too, and given the charge to move this thing forward together.

Sure it feels a bit like a lurching three-legged race, but that's okay. We're still staggering toward the finish line, and as long as we're moving together in the right direction, we're hastening.

But we might need different things. 

I believe, for instance, that this is why the Church is releasing those pesky Gospel Topics essays. You might not have a problem with polygamy. It might have been happily collecting dust on your faith shelf for years, and it can be a bit annoying to be forced to take it down and examine it when you don't feel any need to give it a thought. But lots of folks are still struggling with it. So we need to address it.

Same with gay marriage. You might think The Proclamation took care of any gray areas that might have been hanging around. But lots of folks in the church have gay people in their families. Younger people have grown up with openly gay friends they love and are intimately connected with. Some members live in places in the world where gay marriage has been legal for so long, it's not even an issue they think about. So we need to continue the conversation.

It's all been neither said nor done. We believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things. That's why we call it "continuing revelation." So we should keep asking.

Speaking of gems and Chieko and Facebook, just today my newsfeed brought this:

“When it comes to ideas, I’ve always enjoyed Wilson Mizner’s credo. He said, ‘I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education.' It’s crucially important to be able to turn a different idea around, examining it three-dimensionally, in the context of your own intellectual field and values system, cataloging the differences and noting the points of contrast, but without bringing them into conflict until the process is complete. Reasonable, healthy, needed change cannot occur if we aren’t willing to go through this process. If we hurry through the process, we may end up junking a very valuable idea without seeing its merit; or we may prematurely decide that our own system is flawed and throw out parts of it that we may later discover were not only the bath water but the baby as well. I sometimes think that we Mormons, because we belong to the true church, sometimes are very dismissive of anything we don’t remember hearing in seminary or Sunday School class. That’s wrong. We should be the most intellectually alive and curious people on earth.”
-Chieko Okazaki, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, pp. 57-58

Reasonable, healthy, needed change cannot occur if we aren't willing to go through this process.

Yes! But change is hard. Remember growing pains? Lying in bed at night as a kid, feeling your leg bones ache?

I think that's what we're experiencing now.

You know what kind of testimony meeting would be helpful to me? A meeting where everyone who got up said, "This is what I don't really know. This is what I'm not sure about." Because then I'd think, "Hey! I'm not the only one! And there's someone I can talk to about it!" I'd also note that they were still showing up, so the plot would thicken. And I'd be interested. But besides that, someone else would be sure to get up and say, "Here's what I believe about that. Let me tell you why I believe it," and then I'd get a genuine piece of their personal story. Suddenly it would become a dialogue rather than a monologue. And it might help.

And then they could add, "But I really struggle with _______." And BAM! There we'd all be. Talking.

For me, that would go a long way toward giving me strength. Hearing everyone else in the room say, "I know the Church is true" doesn't really do me much good anymore. I've heard it approximately a million times during a lifetime of meetings.

If it is still helpful to you, I'm glad. Like I said, we can't all have the same needs because we're living a worldwide churchful of completely original lives.

Personally, what I want is a conversation with you.

We could listen to each other, lend our strength and experience, comfort each other in our doubts and weakness, sit together in our sorrows, and all grow in love and faith as a result.

To me, that would pull me along. That would feel like hastening.

That would maybe even feel like moving toward Zion.

-- S.


10.15.2014

Who...Me?




Occasionally I come across a quote or a line that really stops me and makes me think. Sometimes it's something goofy and new agey, or self-helpy in the worst kind of cliched way, but I don't care. I'm a person with a fortune-cookie fortune collection spanning decades, after all, so I'm neither too picky nor proud to collect words of wisdom wherever I find them. 

If I see or hear it and it sticks in my head, it demands further examination. So when that happens, I turn the idea over in my mind a few million times and give it a chance to earn its keep.

Sometimes I wish I could un-hear profound things, of course, because they speak uncomfortable truths which is how they got my attention to begin with -- I hated what they had to say but knew they were spoken specifically for me. I experienced one of those truth-encounters the other day, and I'm hoping that if I write something about it, I can stop thinking about it.

It came from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love (which I have not read). She said it to Oprah (which makes me resent it even more) on a Super Soul Sunday segment and it was something like this:

Who am I going to blame my life on today?

Now, overlooking the fact that there would be a more grammatically satisfying way to say this, it seems to have gone straight to my soul and taken up residence as some kind of great, unblinking truth there.

And I am flinching under its stare. Because it applies to me in more than one area of my life at present.

Oh dear.

It pains me to admit it, but I've got to own it. If you ask me questions about some of the key things I'm struggling with in my life today, I can immediately give you 63 reasons/justifications/pointing fingers to explain why things are the way they are. But you're not likely to hear me say, "Because of ME."

I'm bringing this up here because I think it also applies to my life in the Church, but more importantly, because I think it probably always has. I'm usually pretty quick to blame my church life on The Church or my ward life on My Ward, the struggles in my faith life on My Struggles With Mormonism...etc.

When really, I need to own those things. It's MY faith life. It's MY church life. It's MY ward experience. And I'm the one choosing how to engage, assigning power or importance to things.

Examples that have been known to occur in my personal history of "blame" thinking include:

But -- I don't fit in.

Well...says who? Whom have I allowed to tell me that I don't fit? I think I've probably always told it to myself. I know that was true in high school. I never felt like I fit there. Why would church be any different? If I'm baptized, I fit. I've already been inducted into the club. I'm not forever auditioning. I've got the part. I'm a Mormon. It's up to me to make myself at home here. Do I open my mouth so that other people whom I could help also feel they belong might realize there's a kindred misfit in the room? So perhaps we could band together and commiserate in our square-peg-ness? Enlarge our place? No. I don't open my mouth because I'm afraid of not fitting. Which I'm already convinced I don't. 

But aren't there are as many kinds of Mormons as there are Mormons? And that's millions? Sigh...I'm afraid this one is on me.

But -- I'm mad because the Church did ______.

Well, so what? Big organizations do things all the time that I don't agree with. Why would I expect anything different from the Church? It's a Big Organization. Run by people. So there are all the same things at play that are always inherent in big groups of people: politics, group-think, dominant personalities, cliques, personal agendas, questionable decisions, contradictions, dumbing-down, etc. Put me in a position where I'm subject to the rules established by any large organization, and my natural rebelliousness is bound to flare. But I'm used to that. And I'm well within my rights to disagree. 

There's no "you're either 100% for us or you're against us" in matters of faith. As with every part of life, I must play by the required rules, but I can agree to disagree, and then do whatever I can to promote change. It's what grownup, thinking people do. So this one is also on me.

But -- People at church are mean/or sexist/or narrow-minded/or judgmental, and they shouldn't be. Especially not at church!

Oooh. I've truly been a victim of these things in my history at church. I mean, I really actually have had a couple of unfortunate experiences. And somehow the fact that it's at church (right?!) gets me doubly riled up and all full of righteous indignation. Well, people on the bus or in the lunchroom or at work or online or at the grocery store shouldn't exhibit these behaviors either. But they sometimes do. I am sometimes guilty myself, come to think of it. I don't mean to be. But my Mormon-ness hasn't managed to make it so I never behave badly. I do. So when people behave badly at church, I shouldn't assign it any particular significance. My extra sensitivity in this area? That's probably on me. Rats.

I don't believe or agree with ______.

Now this can be a biggie. It's hard when there are points of doctrine or official positions that we don't understand or that we don't agree with. The beauty of the whole thing is, however, that we are entitled to receive confirmation of any and all teachings. We can seek it from the Holy Ghost. And it's specific to us. So in essence, we are given the right to believe or not believe, agree with or not agree with, any point of doctrine or official Church position. Coming to our own conclusions doesn't make us "Bad Mormons". It makes us individuals on our own journeys of faith, engaged in trying to forge our own relationship with Jesus Christ and love the people around us. Which is actually what makes us Good Mormons. No one else gets to believe for us, or have our witness for us, or do any of our daily living and loving by proxy. Those things are our job. And we all come to it from a different perspective, with a unique lens and each hearing the voice of the Spirit in our own way. 

And that's by design. Nothing about earth life is one-size-fits all. That was the whole point of the chosen plan. So when I don't agree, I need to not blame the Church for that. I need to be comfortable in my own Mormon skin and confident enough in my own spiritual development to accept my doubt or struggle or disbelief and press forward on my journey anyway. I might change, or the Church might, or we might never see eye-to-eye. And it doesn't matter a bit. My faithfulness is determined by what I do, not by what the Church says or what I think or even believe. I've got a pretty decent moral compass, and the gift of the Holy Ghost. It's wholly on me to use them for direction as I make my own way.

In other words, I can't blame anything about the ebb and flow of my faith, my relationship to or challenges with the Church on anyone else at all. I'm captain of this ship, and it's entirely up to me to choose how I react and perceive myself and contribute to my community and engage with my Mormon culture and my faith. And stopping to really consider that feels good. Whether or not the realization had to come via Oprah.

I'm a Mormon...Me.
And just the way I am.

- S.

10.07.2014

Speak up! We can't hear you.




I received a note from an old friend last night asking me why it had been so long since I've written here. She said that she needed a new post. She needed my voice. And I appreciated that on several levels, so I'm here.

I took a walk the other evening with an acquaintance from my ward. She's quickly becoming a friend, but when we set out on the walk I knew very little about her. She moved into the ward about the same time I did. She was put into a very visible leadership position not long after that, so most of what I know about her I've seen through her church-calling filter. I've heard her teach and speak. But we've never had any extended conversation. If you'd asked me to describe her before our walk, I would have said different things than I would say now. Completely different. 

Now I would describe her as being very much like me. We see eye-to-eye on many Church-related topics. And I'm quite shocked.

She's quiet in meetings, just like I am. And I asked her about that. I wanted to know why, because I was troubled by the fact that I would never have guessed that we might be having the same thoughts during some lessons, or struggling with the same issues in our families, or trying to reconcile our politics with what we hear at church in the same ways. She told me that, out of respect for the Church, she decided long ago that she wouldn't voice things that might challenge any belief generally held by the majority in the room. I had to respect that. It beats my reason for silence, anyway, which is usually just being scared to open my mouth.

But then I told her that she is part of my problem.

I told her that I need her voice. Because on the days that I am sitting in lessons that chafe and wondering whether I am the ONLY person who is struggling with the discussion, it would mean a lot to me to know that there are others who are experiencing the same discomfort. Or who aren't sure they agree. Or who flat-out don't agree. 

I need her voice.

Of course, this encounter has caused me to wonder whether there aren't many more members like me than I realize there are, and whether there haven't been quite a few in every ward I've ever been in.

Which brings me to why I've not been here for awhile. It turns out that not long after I started this blog, I stumbled into an online discussion group for Mormons, and have since become involved in helping manage it. So I've found a place to say the things I need to say, and to feel that I'm not the only one in the room. And that's made it so that I've had less need to be here. 

But of course, that's not a good reason to have stopped writing. Because the reason I started to begin with is that I thought there might be others who could benefit from my voice. And by stopping, I too become part of the problem. Online discussion groups like mine where we can talk about things openly with 500 other Mormons who are facing similar questions or experiences are wonderful and can be helpful, but they don't do much to correct the issue that for every member who is speaking up, there are many, many who are not.

General Conference was interesting to me this time. I got the sense that the leaders are aware that there are many members who are struggling with things in new ways as a result of the connected, information-saturated world we find ourselves in. The Gospel Topics essays have been a nod, and a great start addressing a few common sticking points, but they're not keeping pace with the problem. I've had a chance to observe, as I read the discussions people are having, that many members of great faith and lifelong, dedicated church service are struggling. Even some current missionaries are experiencing faith crises. I don't see that it's any one demographic group. And I don't see that it's people who have spent their church lives looking for the door. 

What I do see is people who are looking desperately to stay. They just need a little help, a little change, a little progress, a little continuing revelation that reflects the reality they're trying to reconcile with their Mormon faith narrative and culture. They need the history they're discovering to match the official story, or at least be acknowledged. They need the "I'm a Mormon" campaign to feel like it reflects anyone that they recognize in their ward. They need to be able to express their beliefs -- their own beliefs, the ones they have come to personally over the course of their life -- and know that their version of truth doesn't have to sound exactly like everyone else in the room.

I'm so pleased to see any progress; we just need more. This recent article is a hopeful example -- the Church History Museum is being updated, and will now acknowledge and discuss polygamy in Nauvoo. I never realized that many members (even in my own family) have been taught that polygamy really only came into practice with Brigham Young. It's time to set all stories straight. Polygamy is a difficult enough pill for many to swallow, but we've navigated that troubled water for years. However, finding out that the true story is not the one you've been taught at church takes what was already sticky and makes it much worse.

People are willing to work through and accept difficult truths, and in my observation, members usually desire to believe. As Mormons, we are forgiving of the human component in everything related to Church history. That's something we seem to have tolerance for. But an institutional effort to tweak or sanitize, correlate or improve, whitewash or turn bits of history from unfortunate-to-faith-promoting, well, people have much less tolerance for that. Individual human foibles are a given, because we all have them. But finding out that something has been purposely obscured introduces a lack of trust for the whole organization, and that is much more damaging and difficult to turn around.

One thing that complicates the issue is that it's not the hardness-of-heart that we're always warned about at play here, even though I think many people who've never had these kinds of feelings or struggles may fear, suspect or even assume it to be. People's hearts are wounded and tender in my group, actually. Extremely so. That's what happens when you are suddenly hurt by the beliefs and the practices that you have held most dear, and constructed your life and your family around. 

It's the opposite of a hard heart. It's a broken one. 

And it wants love, and truth, and the peace of the Spirit. It wants to understand, and to be understood. It wants to heal. I would describe it as a seeking heart, not a hard one. 

But what happens next is critical.

I'm reminded of the scene in so many movies, usually near the end, where the whole town is gathered, and the bad guy is up in front railing away about something and then one...by one...by one...brave folks begin to stand up in support of the person who's in trouble. I feel like people are beginning to stand up, and they are starting to get noticed. And I think that's a good thing. 

So we need your voice, if there's anything that you've been wishing you could say, but haven't dared. Anything at all. Stand up and be counted. You'll find you have friends in the room that you never knew were there. That's a truth I've only begun to understand quite recently, and it could be the one that makes all the difference for me.

- S.

8.18.2014

Listen(ing) Up.



Let me tell you something about my mom. She pretty much engages with the world on her own terms. I'm sure she'd say that's a bit of an oversimplification, but I'll give you an example. I remember when she reached a certain age, my mom said she was finished standing in lines. She just announced she'd done enough of that in her lifetime, and she didn't need to do it any more. So she started avoiding activities that require it. And it works for her. Basically, my mom no longer stands in lines.

As for me, I still wait in lines. But then there are a lot of things I haven't successfully figured out how to stop doing.

However, while sitting in church this past Sunday, I noticed some things. Both about what was going on at church, and about myself. It started during Sacrament Meeting, and continued through the 2nd and 3rd hour lessons. It may have just been an unfortunate combination of things that happened to be said, or it may have been the way I was perceiving things on that day. But it occurred to me that as Mormons, we have an amazing aptitude for using turns of phrase that make us feel guilty. Or like we come up short. Or like we could do, or be, better than we are, in just about every area.

There's a Mormony way of saying things that causes discomfort rather than contentment. It's a little sneaky sometimes, because it may sound good on the surface, but there's often a stab or a little gotcha in it somewhere. 

That was the first thing I noticed. The second thing I noticed was that, for what seemed like the first time in my life, I didn't really care. For once, those phrases delivered glancing blows. I was able to identify the twist in each message that empowered it to inflict those negative feelings, and identifying that construction robbed it of its power.

And I wondered how I'd never really noticed how pervasively we do that, and how little value it actually has in energizing people (specifically me) to improve.

Anyway, the bottom line is, I guess I'm done with sitting in church feeling bad about myself. This is my announcement: I've spent enough of my life doing that. It's time for church to make me feel good.

Now, don't get me wrong. There's plenty in my life that I could improve. Everyone needs a call to repentance now and then. I definitely do fall short continually when it comes to so many things. We all do. That's a given, isn't it? If not, we wouldn't have any use for Christ's atonement.

We fall short. That's our nature as human beings.

For some people, having that pointed out to them every week may be motivating. Phrasing everything in a way that reminds them of the things they're not doing, or the ways they could be doing everything better, may make them want to try. I doubt it, and the rate of anti-depressant use in Utah makes me doubly suspicious, but I'm willing to make room for the possibility. 

But the way my brain works, there's already a running dialogue going 24/7 that tells me those things. Piling on with more just makes me feel hopeless. Or worthless. Or ashamed. None of which motivate me to want to do anything but lay down on the pew and wonder why anyone would expect me to want to share the gospel with my friends and neighbors when church often leaves me feeling stressed, guilty or unhappy and then even worse for feeling that way.

Somehow it seems many of us don't talk enough about the joy, or concentrate on feeling it. Right here and now.

The thing about all that negative spin is that I'm starting to believe it may be Satan at work. My daughter (the one in the sidebar there, who has brilliant church insights quite often and will hopefully be joining this blog as soon as her personal life calms down a bit) pointed out to me that Satan working within the Church can inflict much more damage than he inflicts working in the world at large. He can't really hurt people who don't know truth. But he can truly wreak havoc when he gets his hands on people who do.

She used an interesting example of this in a recent discussion we were having about modesty. There's rampant modesty rhetoric running around in the Church these days, and I have to wonder where it's coming from. Because my father has a gorgeous picture of my mother on his desk, in her strapless high school formal from the 1950's, a good Mormon girl through and through, and it makes me wonder why her shoulders were not evil then but somehow should be viewed as being so now. Having raised 3 daughters in the Church, I've seen all kinds of crazy modesty talk that I thought did much more harm to girls than any positive effects it might have had. Which is surely another post. But I bring it up here because my daughter asked, "Are we sure this isn't Satan, whispering to us to grab some fig leaves? We know he's used that tactic before."

I'd absolutely never considered that: the idea of Satan using shame and guilt about something that wasn't really important as a diversion to keep Adam and Eve (or you and me) from focusing on the much weightier matters at hand.

Are we sure a lot of the negative spin on things that we hear from other members or at church isn't more aligned with Satan's tactics than it is with those of a loving Father who wants us to return to Him, and also find joy along the way?

Even when the message is not tied to my own shortcomings, continued dire warnings about the increasing evil in the world do little to make me glad I came to church or feel hopeful and empowered to take on a new week. I'd much rather hear about the good things people are doing, and there are a lot of good things.

Might it not do more for our young women if we did everything in our power to help them feel that their bodies are beautiful and valuable, a gift and blessing no matter their shape, size, or dress...than it does to inflict shame on them for showing their perfectly innocent shoulders? I have to wonder. (I once worked with a Stake Young Women's President who insisted that girls who showed up at camp in shorts that were too short be made to pin extra fabric around the bottoms to lengthen them. I couldn't see any possible good in that solution. It could only make someone feel bad. That's just one example.)

Every now and then I encounter a church talk or lesson that really makes me feel great. But those are relatively rare in comparison to the other kind. For years I've called myself the "feel-good speaker/teacher" because that's basically my entire goal. I probably never say anything insightful or new, but I do strive to communicate a gospel principal in a way that helps the listener feel hope. I believe that hope urges people forward, and isn't that the point?

In some ways I'm jealous of my husband's current church experience. He's attending a ward while he's living in Panama that is conducted entirely in Spanish. He doesn't speak Spanish. So he fumbles along through the hymns, probably mutilating the lyrics but blissfully unaware of that, takes the sacrament (which remains the same because the symbolism speaks a universal language) and listens intently to the speakers, pleased every time he can make out a word or phrase and have any idea what it means. Then he goes home, feeling nothing but glad that he attended. 

So now, I'm going to try an experiment -- I'm going to attend church with new ears for awhile. I'm going to try to engage with speakers and lessons on my own terms. I'm not sure exactly what that will mean, or how it will work, but I'm going to listen intently to the joy and praise and gratitude bits and tune out all the other stuff about how I should do and be more. I'm going to try to point out the good in the world wherever I can, and better appreciate some of the things that are of the world too.

It's not that the other messages are completely without value, I've just realized that they don't have much value to me, where I am right now. I want to be lifted and buoyed, boosted and reassured. I want to be comforted, filled with peace and love, gratitude and praise.

Virtuous, lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy...those are our stated goals, after all.

Next week when I come to church, I want you to tell me something good.

- S.    

7.24.2014

Pioneer Day.




It took me the longest time to stop thinking of July 24 as a holiday after we moved away from Utah. I just naturally wanted fireworks and wienie roasts and Jell-O salads in a backyard or a park, nestled comfortably somewhere in Utah County. I wanted Home.

As a kid, I felt about the 24th of July the way most Americans feel about the 4th. It seemed the 24th was always bigger than the 4th to me. Somehow I felt I owed my patriotism to my pioneer heritage as much, if not more than, to my country.

It was part of growing up Utah Mormon.

I'm not sure how the whole pioneer thing resonates with members of the Church in other areas of the world. I can imagine that it probably doesn't resonate much at all. It's an example of one of those places in the Church where there is a divide between the Utah Original and the Modern Worldwide versions. 

We're on to Mormonism 2.0 now. And sometimes running the updated software on the old equipment can be a bit glitchy.

Why do we western-variety Mormons love our pioneer stories so much? Because they're ours. Uniquely ours. And they speak volumes about the dedication of the people who sacrificed everything to be able to live the religion they loved, follow the prophets they believed in and worship the God they chose. When we tell those stories, we feel connected at the roots. To a belief system and to a place. We feel like a family with somewhere to call Home.

Church members in other parts of the world forge their own stories and connections, I'm sure. They feel rooted to the first generation members in their families, the missionaries who shared the gospel with and/or baptized them, to influential Church leaders in their areas, to the community of people they serve with and worship with. They feel connected to temples they sacrificed to attend, chapels they waited and prayed for eagerly and with great faith. They have their own stories to love and to tell. They may themselves be pioneers.

And perhaps we would benefit more from learning their stories than they do from hearing us repeat ours over and over. It might help better unify the whole, and give us a more accurate picture of the Church we are all part of now. I don't know.

Mostly I'm just for sharing stories.

I'm for sharing stories because it is in our stories that we come to identify as a family. What happens when you sit a family down around a table together? After awhile, they always trot out the old stories.

And even if we've heard them a thousand times, we all stick around to hear them again.

Feeling connected to the lore makes us part of the tribe. Even things that happened in the family before we were born seem somehow to become part of our personal experience.

It's the same thing that makes great literature great. In telling the human story, suddenly everyone is in the club.

A friend who is not a Mormon described it well. He said, "I've thought for a long time that the afterlife, which is to say our real lives, once these birthing pains are ended, will involve accessibility to each other -- an understanding so deep that we'll finally get each other's basic joke."

In my favorite of the Gospel Topics essays, Becoming Like God, our eternal relationships are described in this way: 

"Church members imagine exaltation less through images of what they will get and more through the relationships they have now and how those relationships might be purified and elevated."

They're both saying the same thing, really. Heaven will mean understanding and being understood, loving and being loved perfectly...relationships distilled. Through sealing we all become connected to each other and to God by covenant. An elevation of our human family. 

This is the end goal of our faith, the Home we're all journeying toward. Our eventual Zion.

In preparation, maybe we should focus more on strengthening our connections here and now. Knowing each other in ways that lead to understanding and loving. I think it's swell to trot out our old stories for pioneer day, but I'd really like to become better acquainted with some of the new ones too. I want to know all the ways in which we're family. It's an arduous Mormon trek right here in 2014. And since we're traveling together, at the end of the day I'd like to hear about your journey.

(Did anyone bring marshmallows?...we're gonna need a bigger campfire.)
  
- S.