Monday, November 9, 2015

My Grace Is Sufficient For You

One week ago, I stood in front of my Sunday School class and discussed some of Paul’s teachings that are most dear to me.  I talked about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” likely a physical infirmity which constrained his efforts to do the work of the Lord, which he thrice sought to have the Lord remove from him.  But the Lord left Paul with his thorn, promising instead that “my grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness” and Paul gloried in his infirmity, “for when I am weak, then I am strong.”  I said:
“Paul’s story is another “but if not” story for me.  He was a man on fire for the Lord, the greatest evangelist of his age, willing to live and to die for the Lord he loved.  And yet, rather than heal his disciple, the Lord chose to leave him wounded, to manifest His strength in Paul’s weakness, and Paul became a living testament of the power of God.
“‘But if not’ stories have always had a special resonance with me.  They aren’t pretty, they don’t have happy endings, you don’t often tell them to illustrate a principle in your talk, you don’t often read them in the Ensign.  And yet, they are filled with the power of God.  They’re the stories of a family who faithfully paid their tithing, and still didn’t have enough money to pay the mortgage, the stories of the bishop on his way to care for a widow who is struck and killed by a drunk driver, the stories of prayers that go unanswered, of heavens that are silent, of prophets martyred and promised blessings seen “afar off” that never materialize.
“Sometimes, God removes the thorn, mends up the torn skin, and we go forward rejoicing in His miracles.  Sometimes the cancer goes into remission, sometimes the baby’s life-threatening condition is resolved without the need for surgery, sometimes we wake up and our addictions are gone.  But sometimes, perhaps even most times, God meets us on the plain every day, and as we cry out to Him for relief, says simply, “my grace is sufficient for you,” and we learn to walk in the strength of God.”
Since last Thursday, when the new LDS policy (banning children of gay parent(s) from full participation in the church community, including receiving saving ordinances) hit the news, my own words (and Paul’s) from a week ago have been ringing in my ears, a reminder of Paul’s knowledge that God is good, that nothing can separate us from His love, that His grace is sufficient.  Even with that knowledge, I have felt spiritually torn in half, blindsided by the agony that consumed me—not only for myself, but for all the individuals and families, people I love and people I have never met, who are going to be deeply damaged as a result. I have felt like my whole identity was gone, like I no longer knew who I was, like I was trapped in a well so deep that I could see no way out.  
The policy is contrary to scripture.  It is contrary to the doctrine of Christ.  It is contrary to the nature of God.  It denies the mercy and atonement of Christ.  Every bit of my heart, every scrap of my conscience, and every God-given impulse within me bears witness that God is better than this, that Christ is greater than this.  I will not defend this policy.  It is indefensible.
The policy, and the theological and cultural currents on which it rides, will tear families apart, and do untold damage to “these little ones which believe in [Christ].”  It is a wound to the body of Christ.  It is a thorn in the flesh of the Church.  I will continue to pray, as Paul did, that God will step into the breach, that Christ will bring healing and hope, that this thorn “might be removed.” Broken-hearted prayer seems to be all I can offer in the face of such unrelenting, terrible darkness.
“But if not”--If it isn’t removed, if we continue to be hindered by this infirmity, if this thorn in our flesh remains to fester, I will pray that we will come to know what Paul learned in his extremity—that Christ’s grace is sufficient for us, both individually and as a church.  His strength is made manifest in our weakness, His grace overflows when all we have to offer is our broken, bleeding hearts.  I have seen an outpouring of that grace in the past few days, as my friends have shared their experiences of wrestling with God, and having their agony remade into something holy, sanctifying, and pure.  I have wept with others, received their counsel, been blessed by their insights, and together resolved to do better, to be better, to be more worthy to be called Saints, to live by Christianity’s radical creed: “Bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you, that ye may be the children of your father in heaven, who makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, who sends rain on the just and the unjust.”
I am not yet at the place where I can glory in this infirmity, or pray for my enemies.  My prayers are still the [also Pauline] “groanings which cannot be uttered.”  I am still working to find meaning in the fog, at doing my small part to mend this wound.  I am searching for, and seeing glimpses of, Christ’s radical, sacrificial, transcendent love.  I hope that, in our awful weakness, God will meet us on the plain and show us His strength, that, in humility, we will learn to walk in the light of the Lord.

With this thorn in our flesh, I will pray that we might be given the strength of our Savior, who wore His thorns as a crown.
Other resources:

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

O My Mother

Last Friday, the Church released the last two in a series of essays dealing with controversial or difficult topics about church history and doctrine. I have mulled them over for several days, trying to find the right way to express what I thought and felt. It turns out I had a fair number of thoughts, so I’ve decided to bring my blog out of hibernation and post them here. This post will consider the essay on Heavenly Mother (read it here). If I get time, I will address the other essay next week.

First, I am grateful that this essay exists, grateful that one of our most important doctrines is stated in black and white, rather than being something we whisper about.  I know that in doing so, the Church has put itself squarely outside the theological framework of the Evangelical right, and I’m grateful for that—they were never going to like us anyway, and Mormonism says fundamentally different things about the nature of the Divine than any iteration of Protestantism does, so there’s no reason to pretend otherwise.

The essay is at least as remarkable for what it didn't say as for what it did say.  I am grateful that it didn’t perpetuate some of the more common LDS folk doctrines about Heavenly Mother.  It didn’t say that we’re not to talk about Her, or that She’s too sacred to be discussed, or that Heavenly Father hides Her to protect Her name from being sullied, or that He is a polygamist and there are lots of heavenly mothers.  All this is a step in the right direction.  

I’m grateful that this new essay opens the door to talking more about Heavenly Mother, to talking about Heavenly Parents, about our Divine Family, instead of just Heavenly Father alone.  Think of what beautiful inclusiveness (and doctrinal correctness) we can achieve by changing our pronouns, by publicly expressing gratitude for our Heavenly Parents’ plan of happiness, testifying of Their love for us and desire for us to return to Them, the refining influence of Their Holy Spirit, which teaches us how to become like Them, etc.

Of course, we run into trouble with that last part, becoming like Them.  Though the essay concludes that our knowledge of Heavenly Mother is “sufficient,” I respectfully disagree.  Our knowledge of Heavenly Mother is practically non-existent, the place where She should be in our theology is filled with a giant question mark, even after this essay.  We have a vague notion that She exists, more as a logical necessity than an actual personality (“In the heavens are parents single?  No, the thought makes reason stare”[1]).  We have no account of Her words, no idea of Her attributes, no records of Her commandments, no history of Her interaction with Her children, no sense of Her power.  When we speak of divine beings, they are always male.  Despite our insistence on the need for both a mother and a father in an earthly family (and specifically to create and raise children), we are perfectly at ease depicting only divine men creating the earth and nurturing Their spirit children.  We have given Heavenly Father the “divine roles” of both earthly fathers and earthly mothers, and left no room for Heavenly Mother (except, I suppose, to be eternally pregnant, which is hardly my idea of exaltation). If there is, as the essay claims, a "divine pattern established for us as children of heavenly parents" in our current doctrine of Heavenly Mother, one would have to assume that the divine pattern consists of an all-powerful man (who is also creative, loving, and nurturing) and an absent and voiceless woman we never speak to and rarely speak about.  That doesn't sound like the pattern for an ideal marriage or a happy family.

The fact is that our knowledge is not sufficient—we need more.  We need more because, as Joseph Smith put it,“if men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.” [2]  And without an understanding of the both the male and female parts of Deity, we do not understand ourselves, for we are made in Their image with the potential to become like Them.  We need more knowledge so that we can have a sense of what that image looks like for women, what exaltation looks like for women, what creation looks like for women, what godhood looks like for women.  We need more knowledge so that women will know the Goddess they are trying to emulate—for, despite many well-intentioned sermons at Church—I cannot become like Heavenly Father, for I will never be a father.  I need an image of what I can become.  It isn’t enough to have a vague knowledge that Heavenly Father logically exists—we need to know His character, attributes, power, commandments, and how we can approach Him.  Similarly, it isn’t enough to have a vague knowledge that Heavenly Mother logically exists—we need to know Her character, attributes, power, commandments, and how we can approach Her.   

Another line from the essay felt hollow: “The fact that we do not pray to our Mother in Heaven in no way belittles or denigrates her.”  That simply doesn’t resonate with me.  Using the analogy of an earthly family again, I can imagine how my mother would feel if I never spoke to her.  If when I called home to share good news in my life I insisted on speaking only to my Dad, if when I was confused or needed guidance I only ever asked for advice from my dad, if when we sat down to Christmas dinner, I only acknowledged my dad’s presence, thanked him for cooking the meal (even though my mom is the cook in the family), my mom would feel pretty slighted, and rightly so.  If only dad and the kids were in family pictures, if when I talked about my family and my childhood I only mentioned my dad’s influence, the things my dad taught me, and how much I want to be like my dad—then yeah, I think that kind of treatment would belittle and denigrate my mother.  And I couldn’t use the fact that the Bible hardly ever mentions the mothers of the prophets as an excuse for my poor treatment of my mother.  Similarly, I think that Heavenly Mother wants to be deeply involved in our lives, and is disheartened that when we call home, we never seem to want to talk to Her.  Relying on the Bible (which is not error-free, as our articles of faith attest) to justify our lack of attention to or communication with our Heavenly Mother is pretty weak theology.

I hope that this essay will not be the last statement on the matter, but that as a church and as individuals we will continue to expand our knowledge and understanding of our Heavenly Mother, that we will recognize Her teachings, Her power, Her love, Her influence in our lives, that we will be driven to give thanks to Her, as Elder Holland did during the last General Conference.  By doing so, I hope we all, both men and women, will gain further understanding of our own divine potential and attributes.  Just as we look at family photos and can see that we have our mom’s smile and our dad’s eyes, I hope we will come to see that the divine characteristics we recognize within ourselves come from our spiritual DNA that we inherited from our Heavenly Parents—some of it from Mom, and some of it from Dad.  And I pray that some day, when we call home, we will have the courage to ask to talk to our Mom, to express “the soul’s instinctive sigh for a Divine Mother," and that "we shall find her and be satisfied.” [3]  

The essay quotes Elder Clawson who, more than 100 years ago, wrote,“we honor woman when we acknowledge Godhood in her eternal Prototype.” I think it’s high time we took those words to heart, and I hope this essay provides the impetus for the dawning of a brighter day.  I believe that when we more frankly acknowledge, celebrate, and seek revelation about the Goddess, we will naturally come to recognize, honor, and make place for the full spectrum of Her daughters’ spiritual gifts and Godly power. As we do so, we will come to love God, to understand ourselves, and to build Zion together.


[1] “O My Father” by Eliza R. Snow, LDS Hymns # 292.  The original title was “Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother”.
[2] The King Follett Discourse
[3] The Millennial Star, Vol 34 no. 9, Feb 27, 1872, p.140

Sunday, April 27, 2014

At The Sepulchre, Weeping

This is the talk I gave today in my ward, for our Easter program.

The gospel of John tells us that in the early hours of that first Easter Sunday Mary Magdalene went early, while it was still dark, to the tomb of Jesus, to anoint his body for burial.  But instead, she discovered the stone rolled away and the angels proclaiming the strange news: "He is not here: for he is risen, as he said" (Matt. 28:6).  She ran for Peter and John, but they saw only the folded graveclothes and the empty tomb.  The disciples scattered, unsure of what to think.  But John tells us that "Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping" (John 20:11).  For her, the words of the angels were not enough to dry her tears.  She stood, keeping heartbroken vigil outside the tomb of the one she called Master, the one who had been so cruelly taken from her days before, the one whose body had now gone missing.  Where was He?  Who had taken Him?  Why had they stolen His body?   And what would become of her, now that her Messiah was gone?  A thousand questions must have filled Mary’s heart as she stood there.

In the faint light, she saw a figure by the tomb.  It was the gardener, she supposed--and why should she not?  This was the beginning of the work day, after all, and she was in a garden.  His voice called to her,  as Jesus, always teaching, begins his ministry as a resurrected being with a question. "Woman, why are you crying?  Whom are you seeking?" (John 20:15).

Just like that.  No prelude, no words of comfort--just another question to add to the pile.  "Why are you crying?"  She had already answered this question: "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him" (v. 13).  "Whom are you looking for?"  The question hung in the air.  Who was Mary looking for?

The simple answer is that she was looking for her Lord--but more specifically, for the body of her Lord--to perform for Him the last act of dedicated service that one can perform for a beloved friend.  She was there with spices and oil, to anoint His body and to bury it.  Mary was seeking a corpse.  And she could look forever and not find what she was seeking, for Christ was risen.  And so His question, which seems so out of place, changed the nature of her search, and prepared her to understand the glorious fact of His resurrection.  

And when at last Jesus called her by name, “Mary,” and she understood who He was, Mary clung to Him.  The Greek words translated “touch me not” actually mean something more like “you can’t hold on to me forever.”  Mary’s joy had overcome her sense of propriety, and she was embracing the Savior.  And I can understand her excitement.  For here He was, Christ in the flesh again--not the lifeless body she had been seeking when she left her house that morning, but the glorified and risen Lord, alive and robed in majesty.

I wonder how many times we make the same mistake that Mary did, how often we fail to see God's work because our eyes are clouded by tears or by the darkness that comes before dawn.  I wonder how readily we overlook the miraculous beauty of God's love because we are looking for something else, something far less majestic than what God is offering us.  (I know I've done it.)  How often does Christ stand near us, and we overlook Him?  How often does He call to us, and we hear only the voice of a gardener?

Perhaps we should ask ourselves the same question--What are we seeking?

And when God offers us far more than what we sought, will we recognize the voice of the Lord when He calls us by name?  Will we follow the example of Mary, who "turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master" (John 20:16)?  Will we allow God to turn our tears of grief into tears of joy?  Will we cling to Him and worship Him, transformed and comforted by resurrecting love?

At times when we are filled, like Mary was, with the grief of disappointed hope and dashed dreams, when we stand outside the sepulchre, weeping, when we are seeking the living among the dead, perhaps we should ask ourselves, Whom are we seeking?  Why are we crying?  What are we overlooking?

The scene with Mary at the garden tomb reminds me of another scene, one that took place not long before, with another woman, also called Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, daughter of Simon the leper.  Hearing from Martha that Jesus had come following the death of her brother Lazarus, John tells us that Mary “arose quickly, and came unto him.” (John 11: 29), weeping.

“Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet, saying unto him, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.  When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled.” (v. 32-33)  They took him to Lazarus’ tomb, where, in the shortest and most poignant verse in all of scripture, John records, “Jesus wept.”  “Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him!”  (v. 35-36).  

I never get tired of this story, no matter how many times I tell it.  The Creator and Redeemer of worlds without number stands at the grave of one of his friends and cries. Christ wept because those He loved were sorrowing.  He didn’t say, “there, there, don’t worry about all this, I’m going to bring him back.”  For a moment, for a beautiful, transcendent moment, He just wept.  He mourned with Mary and Martha and their family and friends, legitimized their grief, shared their sorrows, and demonstrated His deepest love.

Some of us have lost brothers and sisters, children, and friends, and I believe that Jesus stands with us at their sepulchre, weeping, and that if we could see him, we would also say, “Behold, how he loves them.”

It is my testimony that Christ knows our sorrows, that in him, the grief of death is swallowed up in victory.  But not just death.  The griefs we live with, big and small, our individual brokenness and longing, our prayers for relief and our cries to heaven are heard.  I believe that when we cry, Christ stands with us and asks us tenderly, “woman, why are you crying?”, and that he listens intently to our answer.  I believe He wants us to come to him with our broken hearts, our weary feet, our piercing wounds, and He will bind up the brokenhearted, he will let the oppressed go free.  He will break every yoke.  He will preach deliverance to the captives, and set at liberty them that are bruised.  And all of us are bruised in some way.  All of us are brokenhearted.

When Christ pushed the graveclothes aside and stepped out of the tomb he overcame more than just death--he showed us that nothing, not even what seems most final, most permanent, can separate us from the love of God.  In “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword...we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.” (Romans 8:35-37).  Brothers and sisters, I, like Paul, “am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 38-39).

I bear witness that this Christ Jesus is my redeemer, that He was crucified for the sins of the world, and rose again in glory.  I bear witness that He is the crucified lamb, the suffering servant, and our great high priest from whom we can obtain grace to help in our time of need.  I bear witness of a God who weeps, and a God who stands with us as we weep, and a God who dries our tears, and I look forward to the time when “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”  “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” Jesus taught.  “But be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  Weeping may endure for a night, but joy will come in the morning.  I bear witness that Christ has overcome the world, and that as we turn to him, our tears of sorrow will be swallowed up in the joy that comes through His perfect empathy, and his resurrecting love.

"Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him" (1 Corinthians 2:9).

Friday, March 21, 2014

I Will Not Let Thee Go, Except Thou Bless Me

As Jacob prepared to meet his brother Esau, after their long estrangement, Genesis tells us that he sent his wives, children, servants, and flocks, ahead of him over the brook.  “And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day” (Genesis 32:24).  It is implied, though not clearly stated, that the man Jacob wrestles in the Lord.  

Jacob’s assailant was unable to prevail, and Jacob wouldn’t give up either, even after the man put his thigh out of joint.  It appears they were well-matched, for they wrestled all night.
“And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh.  And [Jacob] said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me” (Genesis 32:26). And the Lord acquiesced, “and he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed...and he blessed him there” (v. 28-29).  And thus the twelve tribes took on the name, not of Jacob (“usurper”), but of Israel (“he who wrestles [or prevails] with God”).

We bear the covenant of the man who said, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.”

During His journey to Tyre and Sidon, a Canaanite woman approached Jesus, begging Him to heal her daughter, “but he answered her not a word” (Matt. 15:22-23).  Not willing to be dissuaded, she continued her entreaties, “and his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away, for she crieth after us” (v. 23).  But she would not be sent away.  “Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me.  But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs” (v. 25-26).  Quick-witted, and undeterred by his insulting dismissal, she replied, “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”  I imagine that a hush fell over the disciples at this point, their eyes darting back and forth between the two.  Then Jesus, his voice breaking, spoke: “O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt” (v. 27-28).  That very hour, her daughter was healed.  A woman--and a Canaanite woman at that--had persisted in faith until the Lord granted her desire.  

I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.

Enos wrote of the wrestle he had before God, “before I received a remission of my sins” (Enos 1:2)  His wrestle also lasted “all the day long,” and into the night, a day and night filled with “mighty prayer and supplication...and all the day long did I cry into him...and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens” (v. 4).  He describes “pour[ing] out [his] whole soul” and “struggling in the spirit” (v. 9-10) before the voice of the Lord came to him, granting his desire.  “And after I, Enos, had heard these words, my faith began to be unshaken in the Lord; and I prayed unto him with many long strugglings for my brethren, the Lamanites.  And it came to pass that after I had prayed and labored with all diligence, the Lord said unto me: I will grant unto thee according to thy desires, because of thy faith” (v. 11-12).  Enos would not be put off, despite the difficulty of his struggle.  His persistence enabled him to secure a promise from God to bless his people and preserve his record.  “And I, Enos, knew it would be according to the covenant which he had made, wherefore my soul did rest” (v. 17).

I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.

My experience has taught me that God is not easily grasped, not easily wrestled.  Our wrestles with God may put our limbs out of joint, and leave us limping.  We may feel dismissed by God or his followers, unworthy even to eat the crumbs beneath the table.  We may struggle long and loudly, wrestling in the spirit for months or years, begging, pleading, banging on heaven’s door, asking for mercy, for answers, for relief, until at last we extract a blessing from the Lord, one that, He admits, is only given “because this long time ye have cried unto me” (Ether 1:43).  “Come to God.  Weary Him until He blesses you,” Joseph Smith said, “God is not a respecter of persons, we all have the same privilege...and we are entitled to the same blessings” (Ref.)

My experience has also taught me that the answers do come, the blessings are granted, the revelation does distill.  Often, when it does come, I realize that the Lord had been preparing me the whole time for an answer that, had He given it to me when I wanted it, I would not have understood.  And in the days or months or years when I thought the heavens were silent, God had been drawing me into His bosom, our hearts beating close together as we wrestled on the riverbank until the breaking of the day.

I cherish those wrestles. May it ever be thus.  

“And thou shalt know that I am the Lord: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me” (Isaiah 49:23).

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Whosoever Looketh On A Woman...

I've seen a lot of people post that swimsuit video lately.  I appreciate the commitment to modesty that I'm sure led many to share it.  The speaker, Jessica Rey, is a savvy, articulate businesswoman, and a talented designer, and it’s easy to see why so many people found her message appealing. Women today hear a lot of voices telling them how they should look, dress, behave, and live, and it can be frustrating for women to feel so disempowered by cultural messages that tell them that the only value they have is in being sexually appealing to men, that what they have to say is only incidental to how sexy they look when they say it.  Efforts to resist this cultural tide are necessary and laudable, and I applaud those parents who are raising their daughters to value themselves intrinsically, and to disregard what the fashion magazines show them about the importance of having a perfect body or a stylish wardrobe.

I think, however, that this presentation swings too far in the other direction, and I am disappointed with its message, especially when I see it in the context of a rising emphasis on modesty that also devalues women, though more insidiously.  Though it is indeed objectifying to teach a woman that her value lies in wearing fewer clothes and showing off her body so as to turn on the boys around her, it is also objectifying to teach a woman that her value lies in wearing more clothes and covering up her body so as to keep the thoughts of the boys around her pure.  The better message is this: wear what you want, like, and feel comfortable in, not for its effect on other people, but so that you can be happy and free as you go about doing many good things in the world.  And stop judging other people for what they wear as they go about living their lives, because it’s none of your business and it’s not about you.

Ultimately, the speaker is promoting her own swimwear line, and her suits and promotional materials seem quite lovely.  I applaud her good business sense and style, but I disagree strongly with her methods of self-promotion.  Rey's speech is very problematic, for several reasons.  First, she's misrepresenting the Princeton study she relies on for most of her argument.  Most social science research is easy to misinterpret to serve one’s own ends, and this study is no exception.

The study in question, presented by Dr. Susan Fiske at Princeton, was conducted using a sample of 21 male Princeton undergraduates (note that in this type of research, an acceptable sample size is 30+, and that the more data points you have, the more reliable your findings).  These men were asked to fill out surveys that gauged if they harbored "benevolent sexism" (i.e. women should be protected by men, women should not work outside the home) or "hostile sexism" (i.e. women are incompetent and inferior to men, women are trying to take away the rights of men, etc.).  They were then shown brief flashes of pictures of fully clothed and swimsuit-clad men and women, and their brains were scanned for activity.  Note that all the swimsuit-clad women were wearing bikinis.  The researchers did not use pictures of women in "various states" of undress, or with "varying amounts" of clothes, as some articles have suggested, and there were no one-piece swimsuits to compare--there were only two conditions: fully clothed and in a bikini.  Please also note that the images of women wearing bikinis did not have heads.

As for the men's reactions, the researchers found (via brain scans) that those men who harbored strongly hostile sexist views also saw the bikini-clad women as less human, and did not have brain activity in the part of the brain responsible for evaluating another person's thoughts and feelings.  Note that this refers to a small subset of the already-small sample size: only the men harboring the most hateful attitudes towards women.

This is hardly an earth-shattering finding--that men who are generally horrible to women, when presented with headless images from a swimsuit catalog, do not see the models as people, and have parts of their brains light up that are associated with "things you manipulate with your hands" (which should tell you what these college boys are doing with their free computer time, not make you reevaluate your choice of swimwear).  

The headline could just as well read: "A Few 19-Year-Old Frat Boys Can't Relate To Real Women, Study Shows."  Stop the presses.

I also take issue with the speaker’s highly selective overview of the history of women’s swimwear.  She skips over the Romans, who bathed nude and are depicted in murals wearing clothing very similar to a bikini.  She skips over the many cultures in which topless and nude bathing are seen as perfectly respectable and natural.  She lingers smugly over the bikini creator’s introduction of his invention, noting that the model who introduced it was a “stripper,” as if to tar all women with the same brush, neglecting the fact that all change is seen as scandalous when it first appears—after all, not so long before the bikini, women had been wearing horse-drawn houses to go swimming.  Times change.  Culture changes.  And acceptable dress standards are bound up in culture—and they change, too.  Pioneer women would find capri pants scandalous.  That doesn’t mean we need to compare bare ankles to stripping.  Your great-great grandmother would find your one-piece swimsuit inappropriate, while you label it perfectly modest.  But we live in different times and cultures, and there are no absolute rules for determining what is “modest” across all time and space.  (As proof, I would note that the speaker, believer in modesty, is dressed in a perfectly lovely outfit, one that would nevertheless get me labeled “immodest” and kicked out of class at BYU—for showing my shoulder.  So if you’re about to argue that “the world changes, but the Lord’s standards of modesty never change,” you may want to re-think your argument.  And your spokesperson.)

Furthermore, it is not the responsibility of women to manage men’s sexual desires.  Full stop.  It is not women's job.  Even if it were, it’s hard to see how a one-piece swimsuit is markedly more “modest” than a two-piece, or how men would be rendered incapable of sexually desiring women thus attired (something no study cited even attempted to address).  In fact, there is no point at which a woman would be sufficiently clothed to negate a man’s sexual desire.  Men in countries in which women are swathed in robes from head to toe still manage to notice that they are women, and still find them attractive and desirable.  They complain that their eyes and ankles are seductive and leading them to sin.  If it were true that men could not control themselves, a more effective solution would be to put out their eyes or ban them from the beaches, not to mandate a dress and behavior code for all women they might encounter.

Here's the truth: Men are people, their bodies made in the image of a divine Father.  Women are people, their bodies made in the image of a divine Mother.  Our bodies are beautiful and God-given, not shameful.  They connect us to the earth and to each other.  They allow us to relate to each other in enjoyable ways.  They are also not the only way we relate to each other.  Men and women are capable of relating to each other as human beings, no matter what they're wearing.  This is part of being an adult.  We are capable of dealing with our sexual desires, which are normal and healthy and good, without shaming ourselves or those with whom we come in contact.  Fetishizing normal female body parts--be they breasts, navels, shoulders, knees, or (gasp!) ankles—and insisting they be covered because we cannot control ourselves—does real harm to both women and men.(1)

Look, wear whatever you want to the beach.  Wear a bikini.  Wear a burkini.  Wear a one-piece.  Wear a house, if you like.  If you want to, wear one of the swimsuits the speaker is selling—they are cute, after all.  But whatever you wear, wear it because it makes you comfortable, because you like the way your body looks and what it can do.  Don’t wear it because a stranger—or a loved one—has convinced you it’s the only way to get respect, or the only way to be attractive, or that your body is a dangerous minefield of potential temptation for all the men who lay eyes on you and it’s your responsibility to remove that temptation, you irresistibly sexy woman, you.  Don’t give in to the lie that your body is all you have to offer—but also, don’t believe the equally insidious lie that your body is shameful or dangerous or needs to be covered up (but “stylishly!”) in order for you to be a person of worth.

You have the right to be treated with respect, no matter what your size or shape, no matter what you’re wearing.  Men are not slaves to their hormones.  They are capable of treating you with respect in all walks of life.  If the cited study shows anything, it’s that the men who can’t see you as a person, no matter what you’re wearing, are the kind of men who weren’t worth your time in the first place, who were already likely to hate and devalue you.  And their demeaning attitude is not your fault.  It isn’t your responsibility to prevent others from sinning.  Jesus did not say “Whosoever lusteth after a woman…should tell her to put more clothes on, already, she’s causing him to have impure thoughts!”  Jesus laid the blame at the feet of the man whose heart was filled with lust, not the women he dehumanized.  And so should we.  Because lust is a problem of the heart, not of the wardrobe.



(1) There are so many examples of people taking this way too far. The speaker, for instance, decries the rise of the bikini and the fact that now, even little girls are wearing it.  Perhaps she has not considered that a two-piece swimsuit is much more practical for parents running their little girls to the bathroom—rather than peeling off a heavy, wet swimsuit from the shoulders, the child can use the potty unassisted.  Anyone who sees a little girl in a swimsuit and thinks "sexy underwear" is the one with the problem, not the child.

Pictures from and

I've been a little overwhelmed by the response to this post.  It's clear that many of you have strong opinions about modesty, swimwear, and a host of other things.  That's fine, and I appreciate spirited discussion.  However, a few commenters have gone overboard, so I'm going to give a quick reminder on the ground rules here.  You've been warned, and I will delete all comments that don't follow these rules of common courtesy.
1.  Stick to the topic of the post.  (This post is not about breastfeeding, moral relativism, alcoholism, or autism.)
2.  Avoid questioning the faith, testimony, faithfulness, righteousness, or intent of other people, including me.  That's just rude.  Avoid sweeping generalizations about people you do not know.  
3.  Along the same lines, do not insist that you, personally, know the mind and will of God.  Not only is this incredibly arrogant, it shuts down reasonable discussion.  You do not have the "God" trump card in your hand.  Avoid the temptation to play it.  Do not call others to repentance, dump GA quotes on them, or drive by with links to the For The Strength Of Youth pamphlet.  
4. Engage a person's ideas, not their character.  On the flip side, if someone has engaged your idea and disagreed with it, do not claim that you are being persecuted.  Refuting your argument is not the same thing as persecuting you.
Thanks, all!

FURTHER UPDATE:  I think this discussion has reached its natural end.  Thanks, everyone, for participating.  Comments are now closed.  Check back later this week for a follow-up post that will address some of my conclusions from this conversation. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Together Forever

This started out as a short “What I Wish I’d Said In Church” post, but I found I had more to say about it than I thought, and it quickly morphed into an actual post.

Our lesson in Relief Society last Sunday, from the Lorenzo Snow manual, was about temples, and our teacher did a great job presenting the blessings of the temple and talking about the peace that could be found within its walls.  Some of the women shared beautiful and tender feelings and experiences, and I was touched by how deeply the temple had touched their lives and healed their hearts.

Though I have a somewhat uneasy relationship with temple ordinances (a topic I’ve discussed elsewhere), I still find the temple beautiful and holy, and I’ve come to understand its importance in binding us together as a community and as children of God.  A question in the middle of the lesson helped me crystallize some thoughts I’ve had these past few years.  A class member, who joined the church a few years ago, asked a question posed by her mother (who is of another faith), “What happens to those of us not sealed in this eternal family relationship you care so much about?  What’s the alternative?  Where do we go?”  

I’ve actually thought a lot about this, because in some ways, I think the Mormon focus on eternal families is a solution in search of a problem.  We make a big deal about living with your family together forever, forgetting that kids grow up and have families and kids of their own, that presumably they want to be together forever with, except that their kids grow up, and so on.  So how do we imagine it will work, exactly?  Do we imagine a really long dinner table with our whole family, back to Adam, sitting at the same table, and yelling back to Methuselah to “pass the peas!”?  A giant game of Monopoly?  After a while, the whole construct gets hard to wrap your mind around.  

I think of members of other Christian denominations who believe that they are good people and that their family members are good people, and that they and their family members are going to heaven, and I don’t think that they imagine that they will be separated from their families, who live in the same place (heaven) that they do.  So I don’t see “eternal families” in the “families can be together forever” sense as a really big unique selling point of Mormonism.  I think there must be something deeper, some other purpose for this emphasis.

I’m impressed by Joseph Smith’s focus on sacralizing relationships, and his sense that we as people, as communities, need to be bound together, that we need to create welding links between parent and child that will ultimately bind us to God.  There’s a good argument to be made that one of his big reasons for polygamy is to fulfill this mission of sealing people together in bonds of connectedness that would tie them together in this life and in the next.

In the end, I see sealing in families as a statement of intention.  Most of our ordinances are outward declarations of an inward commitment—baptism is a statement that we intend to stand as witnesses of God and bear the burdens of those around us; the sacrament is a statement that we intend to always remember Christ; and sealings are a statement that we intend to create a marriage—or a family—that is tied together by bonds of love and devotion to God.  I think that a sealing signals our intent, but doesn’t on its own create the bond (any more than the baptismal font creates the disciple)—we do that, through our daily actions, by the way we treat each other.  

Furthermore, I think God honors relationships of many kinds.  D&C 130 tells us that “the same sociality that exists among us here will exist among us [in heaven], only it will be coupled with eternal glory.”  And, in my case anyway, the sociality I enjoy on earth doesn’t consist solely of my family members—I also enjoy the company of friends and neighbors and coworkers and mentors, people I love who enrich my life and strengthen my faith in God.  

Which I guess leads me to what I really think about sealings:  I don’t think it’s accurate to say “you need to be sealed to someone to get into heaven.”  I think it’s more accurate to say: it won’t be heaven unless we are there with those we love.  It isn’t that a sealing is required for salvation, but that salvation consists of building eternal bonds with the people we love.  And sealings are one way we signal the importance of those eternal connections, a way we invite God into the relationships that form the backbone of our mortal existence.

I add a caveat at the end here, of course, because of the damage I’ve seen a particular understanding of our sealing doctrine do in the lives of people who are horrified by the idea of being with their family members a moment longer, let alone for eternity.  When we teach, we should remember victims of abuse, incest, and violence, divorced members escaped from a horrible ex-spouse who trampled on their dignity, those with family members who are cruel and unkind, who betrayed their trust, our brothers and sisters for whom the good news of the gospel looks like a nightmare.  I know people who live in fear that God will force them to live forever with an abusive spouse or parent, because, after all, they’re sealed to him/her.  If you are in this camp, my simple testimony is: God is not a jerk.  Nephi said it more eloquently: “I know that God loveth his children, nevertheless I do not know the meaning of all things.”  The tenet of my faith is more simple: any God worth worshipping is not a jerk.  God won’t give us a platter of horrors and call it “heaven.”  As Jesus said—even earthly parents know how to give good gifts to their children.  We don’t give our kids rocks and snakes when they ask for fish and bread, and neither will God. Amen.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

What I Wish I'd Said In Church, Part 1

I've decided to start a new series on the blog, titled "What I Wish I'd Said In Church."  Because there are often things I think of in church meetings that I don't get the chance to say, either because it doesn't really fit the message, or because the lesson moves on before I get a chance to comment.  They'll be short ideas, not fully developed essays, but they'll give me a chance to write more often, which I hope will get me back in the habit.  So here goes.

In a lesson on the Word of Wisdom:
"So, not drinking tea and coffee is great and all, but I really love the part of the Word of Wisdom that teaches us to eat fruits and vegetables in season, and to eat meat sparingly.  I think the Lord had more than just Big Tobacco in mind when He warned of the "designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days" (v.4).  There are an awful lot of junk food and food product producers in this world who are competing for our grocery dollar, and a lot of good Mormons who wouldn't dream of drinking coffee nevertheless eat lots of salty, fatty, sugary food products that industrial conglomerates have specially engineered to make appealing to us, even though they aren't good for our bodies.  I know that I feel better when I eat food that remembers when it came from--and especially when my diet is mostly plants that are in season."

In a lesson on trials:
"I hear a lot of people say that God gives us the specific trials we need to help us grow.  I'm not sure I believe that.  I just don't see God running around making Amy-shaped holes in the sidewalk.  In other words, I think most trials don't come from God.  He didn't specially select them to remove some character deficiency.  Life is messed up.  Sometimes stuff just happens.  Sometimes people are mean.  Sometimes people get hurt, lost their jobs, leave their spouses, or die.  Life is hard.
Another thing people say is that "trials make you stronger."  I don't believe that either.  I think trials make you weaker.  They hurt.  They grind you down.  But even in trials, the Lord can give us strength and comfort.  He can weep with us and lift us and bring us closer to Him.  Trials don't make us stronger.  Turning to God in our trials makes us stronger.  The grace of Christ, when fully embraced, makes us stronger.  But trials just kind of suck."