Saturday, February 28, 2009

Wrestling Before God: Confessions of an Occasionally Dissident Disciple

As a young woman, I had trouble finding and understanding my place in the world. That doesn’t make me unique—I suppose such confusion is symptomatic of the age. There was so much that troubled me, so much that I couldn’t understand. Much of my distress revolved around the difficulty I found in defining and explaining my place as a woman in the world, in the Church, in my family, and in the plan of my Heavenly Father.

I remember feeling torn between the conflicting messages that bombarded me from every side. In my home, my parents treated each other as equals; they were loving partners who were working together toward the same goals. My parents were different people with different personalities, and while my father was the head of our home, his authority was never oppressive or domineering. When my parents differed, my father deferred to my mother more often than not, or so it seemed to me. Although I knew my mother sacrificed much for her marriage and family, she had a good, kind husband who loved and adored her and never expected her to submit to his arbitrary will simply because he was the man of the house. Not that such a demand would have worked, anyway. “Submissive” and “weak-willed” have never been words I would have used to describe my mother.

My mother, who met and married my father at college, which she was attending on a full scholarship, was a full-time homemaker and mom for most of my growing-up years. She sat on the floor and read to me when I was a child. She took me to the park. She volunteered to make scones in my kindergarten class. She was always standing at the crossroads in my life—always there, always available. It was important to her that she spend time with her children, and so she refrained from seeking employment outside the home, even when our family really could have used the money. She learned to be frugal, to make do with less. She raised us to be obedient and devoted to the Lord—by example, not by fiat. She sent a clear message to her children, and we did not doubt our mother knew it. My mother taught us with love, and without worldly recognition. She knew that the most important work she could do would be within the walls of her own home.

In high school, I found my mother’s path constantly disparaged as an unfulfilling and outdated relic of a patriarchal oppression. The idea that an intelligent woman with career potential would throw it all away to change diapers and wipe noses, to be at the mercy of a horde of crying children, was beyond many people’s comprehension. I’ll admit I was, at times, taken in by their ideas, which are especially enticing to an intelligent and competitive young woman. I worried that motherhood would be supremely unfulfilling, that I would live out my life as a mindless drone. I wondered why the Lord gave me a brain if He expected me to forgo its use and become a submissive, unthinking, baby-making machine.

I found little comfort in Church culture. While I sincerely believe that true doctrine, correctly understood, will make it clear that men and women are equals and co-creators eternally with our Heavenly Parents, there is much that has crept into LDS culture that is at odds with such an egalitarian worldview. An intelligent woman in the church will always have to struggle with issues related to the patriarchal order, “hearkening” to her husband, the “presiding” role of priesthood, and how that all squares with the church’s insistence that husband and wife are to counsel together “as equal partners.”

Some outside the Church believe that women in the Church are second-class citizens. I do not believe that our doctrine teaches this, or even condones it. But sometimes I fear that the traditional environment that exists in a fairly conservative church has created a culture afraid to embrace the egalitarianism and diversity that have become hallmarks of recent “worldly” movements.

An example: In the church, “feminism” became a dirty word as soon as it appeared on the scene. I am not a supporter of all the goals of the various feminist movements (I use the plural because “feminists” and their “movements” are far more divided in their goals, beliefs, and methods than are their opponents, who persist in seeing them as a monolithic evil sweeping over the world, with the wreckage of marriages and families in their wake), but I find it difficult to imagine that some of their more basic goals—the recognition that women are human beings with independent destinies and desires, and that they have the right to self-determination, autonomy, and societal respect, for example—would be offensive to anyone claiming to be enlightened by the spirit of God.

On the other hand, I couldn’t accept the cries of the feminists of my day for “a woman’s right to choose” to destroy the life growing inside her. I didn’t find man-bashing conscionable, and I found little joy in the idea of living the life of a high-powered executive, a job that I surely “should” have coveted as an intelligent, driven, successful woman. I wanted children. I wanted to feel their little arms around me, their sticky kisses on my cheek. I wanted a husband, and I didn’t mind the idea of making dinner for him and my little brood when he returned from slaying the dragons of that day’s work.

So where did I fit? Church culture advocated a social order I struggled to accept, and the culture I encountered at school offered an alternative I disliked even more.

Young Women’s lessons focused on a woman’s responsibility to bear and rear righteous sons and daughters. We learned that the Lord intended us to marry and live in families in which our husbands would preside by virtue of their priesthood ordination. We were taught the importance of caring for our bodies so that they would be able to bear many children, and of caring for our minds so we could teach them. Though the ability to bear and nurture my Heavenly Father’s children is one I cherish, I wished that I would be valued for more than that. I wanted the recognition that I was so much more than a womb, a cook, and a housekeeper. I am a passionate, intelligent woman, with desires, hopes, and dreams that found little validation in either Church culture or in secular culture.

Besides, I am too much my mother’s daughter to give in too easily. My mother knows the importance of caring for her children, but she doesn’t much care for gender separation of other work. She split firewood and built a shed, poured concrete and repaired the roof, ran electrical wiring and unstopped the plumbing. She didn’t take too well to the suggestion of more “traditional” men in the ward that she ought to get back in the kitchen while they did the “men’s work.” My mother seemed to have found the balance I sought, without being self-conscious or militantly feminist about it. She knew that she and my father had different strengths, and she was willing to capitalize on their differences. Equality seemed to come naturally to my parents. Although my father performed administrative roles in the home (he worked outside the home to support the family, called on someone to say the prayer at dinner, and was the disciplinarian when we were children), I rarely saw him “preside over,” in the sense of “rule or control,” anyone, except perhaps a misbehaving child.

My father supported our growing family without complaint. His work was never glamorous or high-profile, but he did it thoroughly and well, and his dedication paid off. My father was a simple man—he liked simple food, cleanliness, and quiet. He was a hard worker. He was unfailingly loyal to my mother—he spoke well of her in public and in private, supported her in her hard times, and never thought himself too good to do the laundry or the vacuuming.

My father worships my mother—he constantly tells her of his love for her. He tells her what a beautiful, wonderful woman she is, and how happy he is to be married to her. The best thing about it is that he’s sincere. He adores her, but he doesn’t let his adoration cripple her. He cherishes her as an equal rather than coddling her as an invalid. He’s not praising her as a consolation prize for being the weaker member of their marriage, or as payment for giving up a more vibrant life to submit to him. He respects her many talents and never stifles her creativity and personal growth by trying to maker her “fit the mold.”

Seeing my father’s love for my mother gave me hope that perhaps there was a middle way—that I could be both a homemaker and an intellectual, that I could find a man who would value me for my femininity and my mind, that our marriage could allow all of me to flourish. I hoped to find a place in a world that grew ever more complex, a place where I could live and grow without denying a part of myself.

One of my dearest friends is a man far wiser than I. He taught me to keep my life in balance. As a passionate woman, and a champion debater, I sometimes focus on arguing one point of view so vociferously that I forget to see the other side of the coin. And though my point may be valid and my arguments well-constructed, an unbalanced position is always precarious. This good man would listen patiently as I articulated a strong position on any issue, and then, in his gentle way, would say simply, “You’re right, Amy. But you have to be careful to keep these things in balance.” He would then quietly articulate the other side of the coin that I, in my “righteous indignation”, had forgotten, and my hard heart would melt. As a token of his gentle reminders, a sign above my bed now reads simply, “Balance.”

I’m still looking for that balance. I’ve come a long way since my days in Young Women’s, and I suspect I still have many lessons to learn. My internal wrestlings with these issues have forced me to consider my relationship with my Heavenly Father in a much deeper way than I otherwise would have. As an intelligent woman in the church, I have grappled with the issues that have faced many, issues that are different from those that men in the church must face. I have done so without losing my testimony or my self-respect. I am proud to be a woman, and ready to do the work the Lord has in store for me, a work that is unique to me because of my special talents and abilities, and yes, even my gender. This no longer stings. Instead, I respect the power of God and those who exercise it worthily, be they male or female, for “there are different ways that these gifts are administered; but it is the same God who worketh all in all” (Moroni 10:8).

I do not understand all the keys for reconciling my church’s culture, my society’s culture, and the whisperings of my own heart. But I find hope in my knowledge that the Lord’s kingdom will restore this fallen world to perfect balance. I have more questions than I have answers. But even with all my questions, I’ve found the peace of the Lord, reassuring me that the Lord loves His daughters as much as He loves His sons, and that He loves all of me, my mothering instincts as well as my latent feminism, my harmonious voice along with my dissonant cries.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

By Prayer and Fasting

After Christ’s Transfiguration before His disciples, He descended the mount and found a multitude waiting for him. A man in the multitude begged for the Lord to heal his son, who was afflicted with a “foul spirit,” or a “devil” (Mark 9:25). The man pleaded, saying, “Master, I have brought unto thee my son, which hath a dumb spirit; And wheresoever he taketh him, he teareth: and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away: and I spake to thy disciples that they should cast him out; and they could not” (Mark 9:17-18). The evil spirit had astonishing power over him, a power that was doubtless terrifying to his father and to those around him.

Despite the power Christ had given the apostles over devils (Luke 9:1), the apostles were unable to cure the young man. The spirit had such great power over the boy that “when he saw [Christ], straightway the spirit tare him; and he fell on the ground, and wallowed foaming” (Mark 9:20). Imploring the Lord, the man cried, “if thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us” (Mark 9:22).

“Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:23-24).

The Lord then healed the young man, and the foul spirit left him, and he was made whole. When the disciples asked Jesus why they could not heal the boy, Christ responded simply, “Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:20-21).

I have had some encounters with evil spirits of this type, and their power is indeed astonishing and terrifying. I can relate to the father’s agonized pleading for freedom for his son. The Lord’s answer was so simple—healing is possible, if only you believe. I never cease to be moved by his response—“Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” I have pleaded for that help to give me the faith I need, to cure my unbelief so that those I love can be made free. And I have witnessed the truthfulness of the Lord’s gentle chiding, “this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.”

I stand as a witness to the power of prayer and fasting. Especially when the world seems the darkest, when it is the hardest to believe, when the powers of the adversary seem to be arrayed in their might against me and I doubt that light can ever penetrate through my fear and pain, prayer is a healing balm. It gives focus and direction to my life. It ushers in peace and strength and dispels doubt and fear. It gives me comfort and calms my troubled heart. I know that some afflictions cannot be healed except by prayer and fasting. Some demons are so great that only great effort—mighty prayer and sincere fasting—can expel them.

When I pray, the Lord helps my unbelief. He gives me a portion of His power so that I can have peace as I step to the edge of the light, and take a few steps into the darkness, trusting that the light will follow me. He gives me the faith I need to face doubt and uncertainty, to overcome fear and sorrow. And, armed with that faith, I become a recipient of that great promise, “all things are possible to him that believeth.”

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

My Reasons For Hope

I started this blog over a year ago as a place to record thoughts, feelings, and ideas. I have titled it "A Reason For Hope," which reflects Peter's directive, ""Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15). Though I cannot claim to fully live up to Peter's urging of constant readiness, the reflection that comes from frequent writing has given me an opportunity to consider more and more reasons of the hope that is in me. Allow me to share with you a few of my reasons for hope.

I find hope in the knowledge that my Heavenly Father loves me enough to give His Only Begotten Son as my Savior. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).

I find hope in the empathy that Christ has for my infirmities, and in His willingness to succor me in my weaknesses. I find hope in His grace in my time of great need. "For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:15-16).

I find hope in the resurrection of Christ, in His victory over death and Hell, and in the knowledge that gives me that I too can have part in a glorious resurrection. "For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins....If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of allmen most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept...For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Corinthians 15:16-22).

I find hope in the dawning of each new day, for "all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator" (Alma 30:44).

I find hope in the quiet moments when I feel the whisperings of the Spirit, for I know that the Lord speak in a quiet voice, and that His voice can be heard clearly above the noise of the world, as in the case of Elijah, when "the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice" (1 Kings 19:11-12).

I find hope in trials, because in the midst of trials I know the constancy of the Lord's presence. For "we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ...And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience, And patience, experience; and experience, hope. And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts" (Romans 5:1-5).

I find hope in the love of dear friends and family, for I know that through the ordinances of the gospel, I can be with them forever in the presence of my Heavenly Father, for "that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy" (Doctrine & Covenants 130:2).

I find hope in the kindness of strangers—the woman who helped me buy challah in the market when I struggled with the language, and the man on the street who offered me Sabbath candles because I had none. They let me know that the love of men has not yet waxed cold (Matthew 24:12), that despite the fallenness of man, a few sparks of the divine still remain.

I find hope in the lives of loved ones I have lost. They give me a goal to reach for, a destination to watch for, a spirit to strive for. I long for a joyous reunion with them, and have hope because I know that death is not the end of life. "O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell, which I call the death of the body, and also the death of the spirit" (2 Nephi 9:10).

Because of the Atonement and Resurrection of Christ, I can have the hope that Mormon spoke of, when he urged his people to have hope in Christ: "And what is it that ye shall hope for?" he asked. "Behold I say unto you that ye shall have hope through the atonement of Christ and the power of his resurrection, to be raised unto life eternal, and this because of your faith in him according to the promise" (Moroni 7:41).

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the gospel of hope. Because of His love, I can be freed from despair, doubt, and fear. Jesus Christ is my reason for hope.

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Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sneakers and Salvation

Last week in Egypt, we took a plane from Cairo to Luxor, and spent a few days there. To return to Cairo, we took the overnight sleeping train from Luxor on Thursday night. The accommodations were dirty, bug-infested, and generally less than posh, and we arrived at the hotel on Friday morning tired, dirty, and road-weary. Since Friday is the Muslim day of prayer, we used it as our Sabbath (just as we celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday while we’re in Israel). Because of limited luggage space, we had been instructed not to bring church clothes; we would simply attend church services in our jeans and sneakers. None of us had slept very well the previous night, we hadn’t showered for some time, and many of us were sick.

After breakfast, and before checking into our rooms, we held sacrament meeting in the hotel. Pushing the breakfast tables against the walls, we lined the chairs up in rows in the middle of the room. We sang hymns unaccompanied. Croissants and bottled water on hotel plates and cardboard trays served for the sacrament, with peach-colored tablecloths and a flat bedsheet as the coverings for the sacrament table, blessed and passed by unshaven men wearing jeans and t-shirts. As a woman taught to show respect for Sabbath meetings by dressing appropriately to attend, I felt very much out of place. As the prayers were offered and the sacrament blessed and passed, I knew that I had not had time to prepare my heart for this meeting, and I felt unworthy, embarrassed to come before the Lord in an attitude of worship. I felt sure that our makeshift offering would not be acceptable to a God who requires our all.

That morning, there was none of the cleanliness, order, and beauty that usually sets Sabbath meetings apart from the rest of the week—on the contrary, we were even more dirty, disheveled, and sorry-looking than usual. And yet I do not think I have ever felt the Spirit more strongly throughout a sacrament meeting, as I considered my relationship to my Father in Heaven. I felt so unworthy to be there, so dirty and unprepared. And yet the Spirit bore witness to me that the Lord loved me, and I knew that the meeting I was participating in was simply a physical manifestation of a spiritual reality. None of us is worthy to stand in the presence of God—our weaknesses, sins, foibles, and generally fallen condition make us unworthy of offering Him any good gift. We are all unworthy servants, unclean, unprepared to meet our Savior. When we worship, sometimes our fine apparel and fancy speechmaking mask the reality of our fallen condition, and allow us to forget that we all stand before our King in our jeans and sneakers, with circles under our eyes and dirt under our fingernails, and that, unworthy as we are, He does not send us away. He brings us to Him in love and heals us, for He knows that “they that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick.” He “came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mark 2:17).

I felt that the Lord accepted our offering that day, and I was filled with love for a God who reaches out to us wherever we are. Though I am not worthy to be where He is, to enter His presence and partake of His love, He sends His Spirit out to beckon me home. He meets me where I am and invites me to ascend higher. Even as undeserving as I am, He loves me, and He hasn’t written me off. Even He, who is perfect, smiles upon my humble, unworthy, imperfect attempts to worship Him.

I think that the gospel was meant for us even—no, especially—when we are unworthy. Simply stated, we do not fully understand the purpose of the gospel until we recognize our own unworthiness. The gospel of Christ is not for the proudly pious. It is not for the self-assured and well-dressed. The gospel is for us when we realize that we are nothing but poor travelers who have the audacity to fall at the throne of God in sneakers and jeans, dusty and rumpled and footsore and weary, but earnestly and humbly desiring to come unto Christ and be perfected in Him, pleading that the Lord might accept our poor offering, that our garments might be made white in the blood of the Lamb of God (Alma 13:11).

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Mountain of the Lord's House

Hello, again, dear friends! Don’t worry—I’m still alive! I’ve spent the last week in Egypt, and I’m still trying to dig out of massive piles of laundry and homework, a very full inbox, and a nasty bug that has made me sick for a few days. I apologize if it takes me a long time to answer your e-mails.

Last Thursday our group toured the Karnak and Luxor temples, two of the most impressive remaining structures built in antiquity. Dedicated to the worship of various deities of the Egyptian pantheon, these temples are vast and imposing, brilliantly engineered, with some of the original paint still extant even after four thousand years. Even when partly in ruins, these majestic and ornate temples inspire a sense of awe. In the days before skyscrapers, when these temples stood tall, their carvings unmarred and their colors still vibrant, they must have been orders of magnitude more magnificent.

On Sunday we hiked to the top of Mount Sinai, which is 2285 feet high, to watch the sunrise from its summit. The hike took several hours in the bitter cold and the rocky, sandy desert terrain. The sunrise from the summit was beautiful, but the hike up the mountain, one of the first natural temples where the presence of God had rested, was an even more incredible experience. I am not a very strong hiker and I was already ill, so I had difficulty getting up the mountain. But the difficult climb gave me an opportunity to reflect on my place in God’s plan.

I couldn’t help but think about the feelings that Moses would have experienced as he climbed this mountain, a feat he achieved eight times while already at an advanced age. Moses would have visited the Egyptian temples as a prince of Egypt, and there made offerings to and covenants with the Egyptian gods. When he left his position in the Egyptian court and fled to Midian, he no longer had a temple in which to worship the Lord, nor did he have a God to call his own. His experience on the mountaintop gave him an understanding of who he was and who his God was.

The shear size of the mountain must have awed Moses—Moses, who had seen the Pharaonic temples made with slave labor, now ascended into the temple made without hands, a temple that was made holy by God’s presence there, not by statues, carvings, or magnificent artwork. He had seen the works of man and worshipped at the altars of the Pharaohs, and now the Lord brought Moses to behold the works of God and to worship at His feet. Set beside the massive chunk of stone that is Sinai, all other human creations pale in comparison, even the most magnificent. It is as if the Lord was telling Moses, “You think Pharaoh’s temple is impressive? Let me show you my temple, and then we’ll talk about impressive. You think that Pharaoh is pretty powerful? Well, while we’re at it, let me show you the stars and worlds without number I have created, and then we can talk about powerful.” Having seen both, I can testify that the contrast is stark.

I grew up in New England, where there are lots of trees but no mountains. As a child, I never saw mountains except in pictures, so I didn’t really grasp how massive they are. I guess it’s easier to pretend that you’re big and important when you don’t have a huge chunk of granite in front of you reminding you of how small and puny you are by comparison. Standing in front of that mountain gave me a great deal of perspective, and left a lasting impression.

Several times during the ascent I turned off my light and looked up at the sky. I have long dreamed of going to a place without light pollution, where the cars and the streetlights and the neon signs can’t disrupt my solace, just to sit and look up at the stars. And as I looked out at the innumerable stars that dark morning, as I struggled up that holy mountain, which once served as both the temple and the classroom of the Almighty God, I was led to proclaim with Moses, “For this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:10). I knew the Psalmist’s wondering awe when he wrote, “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained, what is man, that thou are mindful of him, and the son of man that thou visitest him?” (Psalms 8:3-4). As I climbed, my recognition of my own nothingness took the form of a desperate plea for help: “Dear God, I know how small I am, for You have created this mountain, and I can’t even climb it!”

Mortals have built beautiful monuments and imposing cities, but they pale in comparison to the magnificent creations of God. That the Almighty God would condescend to visit His unworthy children is a marvel to me—a miracle for which I will ever be grateful. For God has “made us a little lower than the angels, and has crowned us with glory and honor” (Psalms 8:5). I pray that someday I might be found worthy of that crown.

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