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."

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mommy Flowers

I'm delighted today to have a guest post from Desiree, who was gracious enough to share the talk she wrote for Mother's Day today.  Thanks, Desiree!

Hello, I am Desiree X, though if you call me Sister Y, I won't bother to correct you. I have been asked to speak about becoming a mother, since I am obviously in that process now, being 25 weeks pregnant with my first, a son. How odd that is, saying I have a son.

Being pregnant has pushed me to consider my beliefs even more deeply because I am figuring out exactly what I want to teach my children. I want my children to know their Heavenly Parents love them. I want them to know of both Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. 

I once asked my husband what his thoughts concerning Heavenly Mother were and he gave me a typical Jeff response. He said he didn't know, he'd never really thought about Her much. She was not a subject of importance to him. And that deeply upset me because that is what my goal is, isn't it? To become a Heavenly Mother myself? I couldn't imagine my mortal children nor my spirit children ever thinking I was not important to them. But I understand where he was coming from. Heavenly Father is capable of giving us all the love and guidance we need, just as there are many single mortal parents who are capable of and do raise their children on their own. But, Heavenly Father is not a single parent.

A woman I know from an online group told a story about her daughter recently. In order to keep her overly-enthusiastic kids away from the neighbor's petunias, she has taught them that dandelions are"Mommy Flowers" - and they're allowed to pick as many as they want to bring her. After a pet goldfish died recently, this woman had a conversation with her 4 year old daughter, Lorelei about how we go to live with our Heavenly Parents when we die.

Lorelei asked, "Mom, does Heavenly Mother like dandelions?"

Her Mom said, "I'm sure she does. She created them! We wouldn't even have dandelions without Heavenly Mother."

Lorelei responded excitedly, saying "Oooooooh! I want to bring her lots of dandelions and Mommy Flowers when I'm grown up and dead and go to live with her!!!"

Then a couple of weeks ago, this family walked around outside of the temple and Lorelei saw some dandelions there. "MOM!" she yelled. "There are dandelions at the temple!! Heavenly Mother is at the temple!! Heavenly Mother is everywhere!!"

I hope to have such conversations with my son some day. I don't want him to simply know that Heavenly Mother exists, but to actively think about Her, ask questions about Her, and feel a connection to Her. I testify that both of our Heavenly Parents know us and love us uniquely. Lorelei was right, Heavenly Mother is everywhere, including the temple. I felt Her presence, her love for me, in the celestial room when I first went through the temple a little over a year ago.

I've also been thinking about Jesus Christ's example. It has always fascinated me that as important as getting married and having children is, there is no clear scriptural mention of Jesus having his own family. Instead, he was simply a person. When we talk about him, we identify him as a son and a brother, not specifically a husband or father.

In Luke, chapter 2, a woman named Anna is mentioned as one of the people who greeted the infant Jesus at his presentation in the temple. She is called a prophetess, and is described as being of "a great age". She had lived with her husband for 7 years before he died and then she was a widow for 84 years.

After her husband's death, Anna decided not to remarry or have children, but instead spent her life serving God and telling people about the Savior. Anna shows us that we all have different purposes and callings in this life and whether or not we are married or have children, we are loved and valued by God.

Following the description of Anna is the story about Jesus teaching in the temple at 12 years old. What this story is supposed to teach us is that Jesus had great knowledge, even as a child. But when I was a child, this was my favorite story about Jesus because I learned from it that it is ok to be a kid and make mistakes. Jesus didn't tell his parents where he was and when they found him, "his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.

And then Jesus did something my 8 year old self found truly amazing. He didn't apologize for making them worry but instead said, "How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?"

I know if I'd said something similar to my mom, I'd have received one of her infamous lectures. After all, wasn't it a mistake for him to not to tell his parents where he was? Jesus was perfect, but even he was a human child who forgot to tell his mortal parents where he was. He made a mistake, but it wasn't a sin.

And since I've been pregnant, I've come to think more about the other side of the story, which is that his parents lost him, Jesus, the saviour of all mankind. And they didn't just lose him in a shopping mall for 20 minutes.

The scriptures say that Mary and Joseph "went a day’s journey" before realizing he wasn't with them and then it took three days to find him.

Can you imagine the panic and guilt they must have felt? I plan on always keeping this story in my heart to help on the days I feel that mommy guilt everyone talks about. God didn't take Jesus away from Mary, didn't tell her she'd failed or was a horrible mother. She was simply human and made a mistake.

My second favorite story about Jesus was the one where he "overthrew the tables of the money changers" in the temple.

Of course this story teaches us that the temple is sacred and we must never turn God's house into a den of thieves. However, the reason I love this story is because Jesus shows human emotion.

I was adopted from foster care. I have 2 different types of saviors, Jesus Christ, and my adoptive mom. Had I not been adopted, I would either be dead by now or I would be a drug addict/alcoholic, and probably a prostitute. I know it is a startling thought, to think of me living such a life. But the only reason I am not is because my mom showed me a different way to live. I know some people thought she was crazy for taking me and my younger siblings in, but I am so grateful she wasn't afraid to become a mom to 3 very young children in her 50's.

My biological mother and father physically, emotionally, and sexually abused and neglected me. My mom warned me before I got pregnant that having my own children would bring up a lot of my past pain. That when I felt the love a parent has for their child, I would ask how my biological parents could have possible treated me the way they did. My birth mother did not place me for adoption because she wanted what was best for me, I was taken away from her because she abused me.

I am learning that forgiveness can be a very long process. Just when I think I've forgiven them, I find my anger or pain and disbelief bubbling up again.

I am grateful that Jesus showed us that it is ok to be angry, to be human. That it is ok to not instantly forgive people, especially when they have desecrated something sacred, such as the temple, our temples, or the sacred bond between a parent and child. We should not let the pain and anger consume us, but it is ok for forgiveness to not be instantaneous. Having human emotions is not a sin.

I'm so thankful for my knowledge of Heavenly Mother, because as wonderful and loving as Jesus and Heavenly Father are, sometimes you need a mom. I feared men as a child, so, with my past, I am a bit anxious about being the mother to a son. But at the same time, I'm excited for the opportunity to teach him to be a good person.

But even as I happily prepare for this child, I know that just the sight of me can bring up painful emotions and memories for some women, that a lot of women skip going to church on Mother's Day because it is just too hard.

I have witnessed people I love desperately wish for children and not be able to have them. It is true that they can still be aunts and uncles, teachers, and so on. These are important and wonderful roles, but I recognize that being an aunt is not quite the same as being a mother and that the ability to be a mother in the eternities, as comforting as that knowledge is, is not quite the same as holding your child's sticky little hand in yours during this beautifully messy mortal life.

My sister had a miscarriage seven years ago, she had been 12 weeks pregnant with my niece, Sam. Its been extremely difficult for her and my whole family. Sam is happy and is doing what she needs to on the other side of the veil, but I keep thinking about how excited my 6 year old niece would be about her little cousin. How Sam would put her hands on my belly and ask me how my little boy had gotten in there, did I eat him? And I'd laugh and tell her no and that she should go ask her mom.

I remember how difficult it was for me when kids who were born the year Sam would have been born started coming into nursery. But Sam's death has given me a new level of understanding of just how precious each child is.

For me, nursery is the absolute best place to learn about being Christ-like. Jesus said to love one another, and that is what little kids do. They don't care if you are married or who you are married to, or what sort of work you do, they don't particularly care what you look like or what religion you are.

They don't care what you are, they just care about who you are. Are you a kind, loving person? If you treat them with love, that is all that really matters. I look forward to learning from your children every week and thank you for the examples of parenthood I've seen through the years by observing you with your little ones.

My patriarchal blessing calls my children, "those spirits on loan from Heavenly Father." I've taken this as a reminder that our children are first and foremost our Heavenly Parent's children, our brothers and sisters.

So I would just like to end by saying that I know our Heavenly Parents know and love us each as individuals and that I am so grateful for what just these few months of pregnancy have already taught me. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Don't Believe Everything You Read in the Deseret News

Okay, by now we've all read the piece by the DesNews blogger, Andrea Whatcott, entitled "Don't Believe Everything You Read in the News."  In it, she takes most of the mainstream media to task for misinterpreting Elizabeth Smart's recent remarks at Johns Hopkins for their own political ends.  I had several problems with her post that basically boil down to this: I think it's disingenuous.

First of all, I agree with her on this point--you should definitely watch Smart's full remarks, not just read the coverage on them.  Here they are.  Really, go ahead, the video is only twelve minutes long.  Smart's main themes are:
1.  A retelling of the story of her own kidnapping, repeated rape, captivity, and rescue.
2.  An exploration of why she didn't run, and therefore why other victims of trafficking and kidnap might not run:
     a.  Because she was afraid that her captors would hurt or kill her or her family.
     b.  Because she felt that her life was worthless since she had been raped, and no one would ever want her or love her again.
3.  A charge to teach our children more about trafficking and kidnapping, and prepare them with the skills to fight back.  She didn't go into this very much, except to say that we should teach our children that they are of worth, and that it is worth it to fight back or run, because their lives are still of value.  This seems to tie directly into her previous point.

Smart spends a great deal of time on these last two points, so for Whatcott to insist "that's not what Smart focused on" is false.  In fact, Whatcott (or her editor) went back and edited (the editorial note says "updated and expanded") her own Deseret News piece so that it mostly discusses the same themes that all the other mainstream media sources discuss--Smart's feelings that she was "worthless," "dirty," "filthy" and "a chewed-up piece of gum" following her rape--feelings which stemmed not only from the horrors of her rape, but, by her own direct admission, from teachings she had absorbed from her own "very religious upbringing" that because the "most special thing" had been taken away from her, "Who would ever want me now? I'm worthless...I understand, all too well, why someone wouldn't run, because of that alone."

Whatcott claims, "Smart was raped. She felt worthless because of it. I don’t think she would have felt less worthless if her school teacher hadn’t taught that abstinence before marriage is ideal, or if her parents hadn’t taught her the sacredness of intimacy."  Not only is this false--Smart herself cites these two teachings as things that contributed to her feelings of horror and worthlessness--but it's also a straw man.  None of the articles Whatcott cites are claiming that there's anything wrong with teaching kids that waiting for marriage to have sex is ideal.  What they are objecting to--and what I think any thinking person MUST object to--is a certain way of teaching chastity and abstinence that has arisen in conservative Christian cultures--including our own--and that does great damage to people like Elizabeth Smart.  It does damage to the shockingly high number of people (women especially) who are the victims of sexual abuse, incest, and sexual assault in its various forms.  When we teach our youth about sex in a way that emphasizes purity and virginity, which, once lost, can never be regained, we do a disservice to rape victims and to those who have voluntarily had sex--we cast them as tainted, as worth less than their peers, as chewed gum that no one will re-chew.

Departing Young Women General President Elaine Dalton gave a talk at the last General Conference which, in reference to Mormon's account of his people raping, mutilating, murdering, and eating the bodies of captured Lamanite women, said, "Mormon...lamented that the women were robbed of that which was most dear and precious above all—their virtue and chastity." (Talk about taking his words out of context! (She's done it before)) When we teach our daughters that their virginity is the thing that is "most dear and precious above all," and then they lose that most precious thing--by force or by choice--is it any wonder that they feel worthless and irreparably damaged?  In Smart's words, "I mean, if you can imagine the most special thing being taken away from you, and feeling like that...was something that devalued you.  Can you imagine turning around and going back into society where you are no longer of value, where you are no longer as good as everybody else?"

So yes, the chewed gum analogy wasn't the only thing Smart said.  But she wouldn't have said it if it wasn't important, and it was a particularly vivid example of the main thrust of her remarks.  So many media outlets picked it up and ran it, not because they're trying to tear down the church or they hate chastity--but because the way we teach chastity damages people, and it is a very real problem in our community and in others.  The way we teach chastity needs to change.  It wasn't every other media outlet in the country that missed the point, it was Whatcott.

It's possible to correct this problem, but not if we bury our heads in the sand and ask everyone to "move along, nothing to see here!"  The "All is well in Zion" attitude of the Deseret News in general and Ms. Whatcott most recently, the inability to acknowledge that we have a problem, are, I believe, an impediment to the good that could be done by the changes that need to be made.

Other writers have noted some of the ways we could do a better job.  Nate Oman writes that we should decouple chastity from virginity, noting memorably that "Generally, if people keep the law of chastity their entire lives, they will naturally be virgins on their wedding nights. That, however, is not the point of chastity any more than the avoidance of coffee stains on your desk is the point of the Word of Wisdom." (I recommend his full essay here).  Kristine Haglund has noted that we could stop teaching the Young Women that verse in Moroni as if it had anything at all to do with virtue.  Matt Chandler, referring to a variant of the "chewed gum" analogy, involving a wilted rose that has been touched by everyone and therefore "lost" its purity, has beautifully declared "Jesus wants the rose!"  Sarah Hanks has a few ideas for better object lessons to use in talking about sex.  And Richard Beck has explored the Christian purity culture and offered us a new paradigm.

These are the messages we should be giving our youth.  We should teach in love, not in shame.  We should be sensitive to the feelings of victims of abuse.  We should stop teaching our girls that their value lies in their virginity--not because we believe chastity is unimportant, but because we know that our girls are more important than their hymens.

Monday, May 6, 2013

I Have No Need Of Thee

"Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant...there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.  And there are differences of administration, but the same Lord," Paul wrote to his friends in Corinth (1 Cor. 12:1-5).  He was concerned, because word had reached him that the Corinthian saints had begun to be divided, proclaiming their talents and gifts to be superior to their neighbors'.  Some are given one gift, he wrote, and some another, but it's all the same Spirit and the same Lord.  Your neighbor may have the gift of prophecy, your friend the gift of faith, your wife the gift of healing, and you the gift of tongues, but "all these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills" (v. 11).

These gifts are meant to bring us together, not drive us apart, just like the many functions of our different body parts unite us and help us function.  "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.  If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”" (v. 12-21).

There is a great polarization in our world today, in many spheres.  Politics has become so dysfunctional that bipartisanship and moderation are dirty words, and reaching across the aisle for the good of the people is seen as handing a victory to the enemy.  Religion is fragmented into conservative and liberal factions, each dismissing the other as deluded and lamenting their benighted-ness.  We have forgotten that ideological differences need not turn us into embittered foes.

It's an easy position to fall into, when we come up against those with whom we disagree, those who perceive the world differently than we do.  We see only their "not-me-ness" and hastily conclude, "I have no need of thee," not thinking that perhaps the reason for our different perceptions is that we may be the eye, and our neighbor, the ear, perceiving in fundamentally different ways, not because one of us misapprehends the nature of reality, but simply because we have different functions in the body, which "has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body."

Sometimes, perhaps most tragically, we find ourselves so alienated from others' worldview that we are sure that we do not belong to the body, whether it be the body politic or the body of Christ.  Hearing the loud chorus of hands around us excitedly reporting on their tactile sensation, it is easy to conclude that "because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," and difficult to frame the impulses received by our retinas in a way that is comprehensible to our neighbors, difficult not to think that we will never feel what seems so natural to our neighbors.

I make these mistakes a lot.  From not-so-subtly bristling at those irritating comments Brother Agitate makes in Sunday School, to leaving church in tears, certain that I will never belong among these people who believe so differently from me, the way I perceive my faith and my God often leave me in need of Paul's reminder, "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of thee,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of thee.'"  Because, in the end, we all are members, not just of a church, but of the body of Christ, who told His disciples to "be one, and if ye are not one ye are not mine" (Doc. & Cov. 38:27).

I believe, as I wrote earlier, that there is room for all of us in the fold of God.  There is room for--nay, need for--all of our individual God-given spiritual gifts in building the Kingdom.  It isn't easy to integrate our varying gifts and cacophonous voices into anything resembling harmony, and it's often tempting to stamp out the discordant voices, easy to convince ourselves that unity requires unanimity.  But the radical call of Christian discipleship is to achieve harmony while honoring diversity, to recognize that unity comes, not through conformity, but through charity.

Paul concludes his eloquent discourse by showing the Corinthian saints "a more excellent way" (12:31) to understand the interaction of their spiritual gifts in the body of Christ: have charity, or love, for one another.  For without love, he says, all other spiritual gifts are "nothing" (13:1-3).

"Love," Paul says, "is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends" (13:4-8).  And the other gifts and talents we cared so much about in this life?  "As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away" (13:8-10).  Though now our vision is clouded, there will come a time when we will see clearly, and will know one another fully even as we are fully known.

I hope that, when that day comes, when we "put away childish things," that we won't be left with the uncomfortable realization that we've been cutting off our nose to spite our face--or worse, because it had the audacity to be something other than an ear.  I hope that we can learn to draw circles that take others in rather than shutting them out, even when we wonder how we could possibly share the same body with members who are so different from us.  I hope we will have learned, by then, that we all belong to the body of Christ.  And if the "feeble knees" need strengthening and the "hands which hang down" need lifting up (Doc. & Cov. 81:5), we should remember that these are the knees and the hands of the body of Christ, of which we are all members.  For, in the end, when it comes to the body of our Lord, none of us can ever say, "I have no need of thee."