Monday, June 15, 2009

Teach Them Dilligently To Thy Children

I recently overheard the story of a young woman, who was preparing to be endowed the following day in anticipation of her upcoming temple marriage. When she expressed some nervousness about the experience, her sister gravely counseled her, "Just remember, when the goat comes by, jump on it!" She was puzzled and hesitant, and wondered what she was getting herself into.

Of course her sister was joking. No goats (or any other animals) are involved in any of our temple ceremonies. But I believe that the fact that this young woman was able to be suckered into believing such a thing by her sister's offhanded comment indicates a fundamental problem with the way we think--and teach--about the sacred.

Mormons have a funny relationship with the sacred. Not given to levity, we strive to give sacred experiences and truths proper respect. Somewhere along the line, "respect" came to be synonymous with "silence," and we decided that sacred things ought to be completely secret, lest any unprepared "swine" defile our "pearls" with their uncouth speech.

I admire the reverence that began this trend, but I despise what has come of it. With no clearly drawn lines, our desire to show respect and avoid vulgarity has led us to avoid speaking of any aspect of sacred things (to the point that some are unwilling to discuss the color of the temple carpet!), and so has left us and our children unprepared for our encounters with the sacred.

We do the same thing when we teach our children about sex. Mormonism officially regards married sex as good, sacred, and holy. But practically, we're very Victorian about it, and our embarrassed silence is only reinforced by our recent emphasis on its "sacredness," since we can conveniently import the same hush-hush attitude that we use for all other sacred things, and use it as a justification for our embarassment. Any reference to sex is couched in so many euphemisms and analogies as to be utterly incomprehensible--"marital intimacy," "procreation," and "the birds and bees" being among the more intelligible ones I've heard. Discussions of sex with youth quickly degenerate into embarrassed winking from leaders, and repeated recitations of horror stories of nice young men and women who lost their virtue and thus ruined their lives irreparably. The emphasis is always on "DON'T!", and even when accompanied with some passing reference to the joys of married sex, the take-away message seems to be, in the words of Laura Brotherson, "Sex is dirty, nasty, evil, and save it for someone you love!" Parents take their children out of sex ed, fearing age-inappropriate information. Their awkwardness prevents them from discussing the subject with their children. And then young brides and grooms get married without any understanding of or instruction in an activity that can be a strong welding link--or a divisive wedge--in their marriage, understanding little about the mechanics of sex except for the basic plumbing.

The parents and leaders are well-intentioned, of course, but the life-long problems (and I have watched them unfold--in both arenas!) that result from this style of teaching are grave enough to warrant serious reflection on our discourse about the sacred.

The Doctrine & Covenants teaches us about speaking of sacred things. The Lord said, "Remember that that which cometh from above is sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constraint of the Spirit; and in this there is no condemnation, and ye receive the Spirit through prayer, wherefore, without this there remaineth condemnation" (Doc. & Cov. 63:64). Clearly, when we speak of sacred things with care and through the Spirit, there is no condemnation--in fact, such speech is commanded, not merely permissible. Consider an earlier commandment: "And they shall observe the covenants and church articles to do them, and these shall be their teachings, as they shall be directed by the Spirit. And the Spirit shall be given unto you by the prayer of faith; and if ye receive not the Spirit ye shall not teach" (Doc. & Cov. 42:14). Obviously the Lord's commandment in both instances is not "do not teach," but rather, "do teach--but when you teach, make sure you do it with the Spirit."

Hugh Nibley discussed this subject with feeling and a hint of irony. He said, "What the Mormons like best about their temples is the obligation of secrecy that exonerates them from ever having to speak, and hence to think, about what they have learned by the ordinances and teachings. So strict are they in observing the confidential nature of those teachings that they, for the most part, scrupulously avoid dropping so much as a hint to outsiders by putting any of them into practice." (Petersen, Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life, 361)

Would we baptize a child--or a new convert--without telling him what to expect, without outlining for him the covenants associated with baptism? Of course not. Why would we send our children into any other sacred or life-changing experience without preparing them--and not in a brief hour-long talk right beforehand, but from the moment they are able to understand the significance of the event?

Would it kill us to teach our kids directly and specifically, albeit in age-appropriate ways, about experiences and ordinances we hold dear? Would it not lead to children more prepared to understand and receive truth, who can meet the future without fear or apprehension, who can confront the sacred elements of their lives with appropriate eagerness and gravity?

But to develop this spiritual maturity our children must be taught, as Paul said, "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?" (Romans 10:14).

I believe that children raised in a home in which sacred topics are discussed in an atmosphere of openness, trust, acceptance, and love, by care and constraint of the Spirit, will learn from their parent's examples how to meet the sacred with enthusiasm and solemnity, and without levity or trepidation. They will learn to value and appreciate the things their parents value, and will thereby come to know the Lord and to rejoice in His love.

"And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up" (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).


  1. Kate-
    I'm really glad that you had the opposite experience on both counts. It's good to hear stories like yours. I still think that a person's first introduction should not be in the pre-wedding bishop's interview or the BYU pre-marital classes, but those are a really good start.

    Speaking of the pre-marital classes, I've heard about them, but none (zero) of my recently-married friends have attended them. Perhaps they're not that well-known or well-advertised--not sure. Same thing with the bishop's interview--yours is the first story I've heard of a bishop who was direct and specific about what to expect from the temple. And I've heard a lot of traumatized stories of people completely blindsided when they got to the temple.

    It's certainly true that our leaders--and rank-and-file members--are doing a lot better at openness than they have in the past. I just think we still have a long way to go. I have seen too many lives and testimonies ruined (literally) by secretiveness about these subjects, and so I feel very strongly about more openness--not in an inappropriate fashion, but with care and by constraint of the Spirit.

    Am I going to demo sex for my kids? Of course not. Am I going to use diagrams and books and specifics? Absolutely. Am I going to reveal priesthood tokens at the dinner table? No. Am I going to have a Family Home Evening lesson on "What My Temple Covenants Are, and What They Mean To Me?" You betcha.

    Your mileage may vary.

  2. PS
    My husband says that what is really lacking in LDS culture is enough encouragement to seek out sex education. He said that he always knew that he would have to take the initiative and read a book about sex before he got married, just because he saw his sisters doing the same thing. He went to the premarital class and said it was way, way, way better for him because there were lots of people so it was more embarrassing thus easier to handle.

    He says that when it comes to the temple, it would probably be a good idea to remind people who are preparing to go that ordinances are strange. We're used to seeing baptisms and having the sacrament passed, but if you think about those ordinances, they are symbolic and kind of, well, weird. If people were prepared with that kind of logic before going into the temple, it would probably make the whole experience a lot easier for them.

    He also says that when you don't understand something about the gospel, you're supposed to pray about it. If people would take that attitude, the people who have shocking first experiences in the temple would quickly gain a testimony of the truth of those ordinances.