An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for October, 2009

Gender Stereotypes

My blog on gender inequality drew the greatest number of hits so far. Apparently sex sells. I suspect some, maybe most, of the traffic was from Mormon males suspicious of feminists  masquerading as devout Mormons. Okay, so I’m stereotyping. I just hope the BYU Rush Limbaugh Dittoheads of the ‘90s have grown up and moved on—although Rush’s label, Feminazi, is still used as a pejorative by adolescent Utah males.

But I digress. Back to stereotypes which exist, of course, because they are based on general truths.  The problem comes when we apply them to everybody. My visiting teachers gave a lesson this week on the importance of nurturing children and repeated the statement oft repeated in RS lessons: “Women are more nurturing than men.” What century is that notion from? Both my son and my son-in-law are nurturing fathers. When I visit my grandchildren, I call either their father or mother when a dirty diaper needs attention. My nurturing instincts now halt at the first whiff of baby poop.

Yes, I did change my own babies’ diapers and I loved and nurtured my children in every way but one. I never made baby quilts for them or sewed their clothes. God chose not to bless me with the spatial ability necessary to cut up a two-dimensional piece of fabric and stitch it into a three-dimensional garment. I tried saving money by shopping at thrift stores and botching do-it-yourself decorating projects. Eventually, I found our family benefited more by my using the talents I have been blessed with to help earn the living rather than by trying to develop non-existent abilities.

Since my mother was the super-homemaker type, I must have received more of my aunt’s genes. George realized my family’s less than conventional bend the day he met Aunt Loosy. She drove up in a dump truck from which she alighted wearing a dress and heels. Her car wasn’t running, so she had driven the truck to a Relief Society meeting. I don’t remember why she had a dump truck as a spare vehicle—maybe to keep her tractor company.

While I’m attacking stereotypes, what about the idea that women are romantics while men are only interested in sex? I taught junior high long enough to be disabused of that notion. A note a 13-year-old girl writes about the thrill of having a guy’s hands next to her butt is sexual, not romantic. And 14-year-old boys discussing the hope that when they’re 16, maybe they’ll be driving down the freeway and see their student teacher and  wave to her is romantic. Dumb, but romantic.

George froths at priesthood lessons that instruct the brethren to tell their wives they love them every day. He knows his wife’s attitude is, “Why do you need to tell me unless you change your mind?” But maybe most women do enjoy hearing, “I love you” every day. And maybe I should quit complaining and just be grateful that Relief Society lessons don’t admonish the sisters to reassure their husbands of their manhood in bed every night.

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Spiritual Experiences

I grew up believing the LDS Church was the only true church. Everybody I knew told me so, but I had no spiritual experiences on which to base my faith until I married and moved from Utah. We moved into a small ward in Wyoming that needed and cherished every warm body, no matter how eccentric or unorthodox. Third Ward needed Primary teachers and a Scoutmaster. Neither our civil marriage nor George’s smoking counted against us.  Church provided instant friends who shared their testimonies. I no longer attended church to avoid guilt. I attended to participate in the social and spiritual experiences available there.

We moved on to Washington State and I became a stay-at-home mom and attended Relief Society for the first time, back in the days of weekday morning meetings. Again, the sisters in the ward substituted for my deceased mother and the sisters I never had. Attending meetings and fulfilling callings enveloped me in warm, loving spirituality.

Eventually George overcame cigarette addiction and we were sealed as an eternal family—the most spiritual experience of my life to that point. I loved the peace of temple worship, but was disappointed that it made so little difference in my everyday life.

Eventually, the silent, subservient portrayal of women in the temple nagged at me. For a while I substituted initiatory sessions for the endowment, so I could partake of the temple spirit without the distracting message. At the same time the Curriculum Committee began recycling Sunday School and Relief Society lessons. Regardless of which prophet or which scripture was studied, the lessons varied not. I could predict to the moment when Sister Virtue would share her experience of returning to the supermarket to hand over a nickel of extra change the checker had mistakenly handed her. The three-hour block became a burden rather than a blessing. Each Sunday I left church feeling less spiritual than when I’d arrived. Once the kids grew up and left home, I couldn’t find a reason to attend meetings.

Personal scripture study had a perverse effect. The more I read the Book of Mormon, the less convincing and spiritual I found it. Only personal prayer satisfied spiritual longing. Fortunately, I found yoga, meditation and Buddhism at this time.  They have been my “growth religion.”   From them I have found the peace that comes from focusing on the present and accepting life as it is.

I know devout Mormons gain spiritually from LDS meetings, and I have no wish to undermine their testimonies. I value the spiritual growth the Church gave me earlier in my life. I maintain my membership because I value my family, friends, and neighbors who are active members. I value the social contacts and opportunities to help needy neighbors which my membership gives me.

My spiritual growth comes from new insights and ideas rather than from repetition of previously learned doctrine. On Fast Sunday I usually attend Testimony Meeting to hear unrehearsed spiritual experiences shared by members. Other Sundays I visit the Zen Center to meditate, attend the Unitarian Church for uplifting thoughts and music, and commune with the Spirit at home or on a walk alone. My spiritual growth is my personal responsibility. I cannot delegate it to an organization.

Emotional Infidelity

Emotional Infidelity

The September Ensign ran an article warning of the marital danger when one spouse has a close friend of the opposite sex.  First Thessalonians 5:22 was cited to caution LDS members to avoid the appearance of evil. Even though the footnotes  in the LDS NT identify the Greek word for “appearance” as actually “kinds,” the KJV mistranslation is regularly quoted in conference addresses and offical Church publications. I object to citing this mistranslation as doctrine—not because I’m interested in cheating on George—even assuming I could find someone willing to accommodate my indiscretion—but because that erroneous message creates rather than resolves problems of human relationships.

One-dimensional thinking about male/female relationships results in a constipated fear that married persons should never interact with a member of the opposite sex alone. Unless a person works for a unisex business, this mindset makes the workplace difficult or at least inconvenient. One morning George left for work without noticing the flat tire on my car. When I rushed out the door to head for school and saw the tire, I knew I didn’t have time to try my hand at fixing the flat and I was too late to catch a colleague who lived nearby. My principal lived about a mile north of our house and didn’t arrive as early as we teachers. I called to ask him to swing by and pick me up. He hemmed. He hawed. He asked if I couldn’t call one of the teachers already at school to drive back and pick me up. What was his problem? My house wasn’t more than a couple of minutes out of his way. Finally, he agreed to stop for me. Later, it occurred to me that since he was the bishop of his ward, he must have thought it improper to pick up a teacher for a two-mile ride to school even though the teacher was 20 years his senior and resembled his mother more than a potential girl friend. Maybe I should have been flattered that he feared somebody might mistake me for a cougar.

But back to the Ensign article. I think the author missed the point. Cross-gender friendships don’t threaten a marriage. Lack of friendship between husband and wife threatens a marriage. Spouses who are happy at home seldom stray no matter how green the surrounding pastures. And even the most saintly Saint may attach romantic feelings to another party if her own marriage isn’t satisfying.  A Relief Society president in my former ward confessed to having been attracted to a married man with whom she worked. Only the thought of the devastation she would cause her children brought her back from the brink of transgression. While I don’t normally condone marital infidelity, I would have made an exception for Sherry—because she’s married to Lamar—the kind of guy who walks around like he’s just keistered the iron rod—all of it. For the sake of their children, I’m glad Sherry didn’t cheat on Lamar. But for her sake, I hope he dies first and leaves her a little time for a fling with a fun guy.

Faith-promoting Stories

Missionaries insert faith-promoting stories into discussions with investigators. General authorities publicly denounce the more fantastic tales, but the Ensign continues to publish them. They evoke tears of sentiment or jeers of scorn from hearers. For better or worse, faith-promoting stories are likely to remain a vital part of Mormon culture.

The earliest FPS I recall was from a Beehive teacher trying to impress us with the sacredness of LDS garments. She told us they were a protection to the wearer and related the tale of missionaries returning from Europe on the Titanic. When their bodies were recovered, it was found that the fish had eaten everything but the parts of the body covered by the garment. I swallowed the story hook, line and sinker—never questioning how the missionaries’ bodies were recovered from the mid-Atlantic or the benefit of having their torso left in one piece after head, arms and lower legs became fish food.

When John F. Kennedy ran for president, I knew he would lose because the story making the rounds in Utah County was that the Doctrine and Covenants said a Catholic would never become US president. Yes, I know. Reading the scriptures myself would have prevented this gullibility.

If I were a better person, I would simply enjoy the story rather than register disbelief when a sincere believer relates an unlikely FPS. A sister-in-law related a marvelous story about a Japanese bomber pilot whose mission was to bomb the LDS temple on Pearl Harbor Day. He was given the exact location of the temple, but when he flew over the spot, nothing was there. He rechecked his directions and made another pass over the spot. Still nothing. He made another pass over the indicated spot and found nothing, so he flew over the ocean and dropped his bombs into the water. Years later, when he related his story to a Mormon missionary, he was asked if that experience didn’t make him want to join the Church. “No,” he declared. He wanted nothing to do with a religion that had a God that strong.

Since I’m not a better person, I asked Elva why the Japanese would have chosen to bomb the temple. She drew herself up haughtily and informed me that her son-in-law had heard the story on his mission to Japan and it was true.

The really fanciful stories are entertaining and probably do little harm. More harmful are those that warn of impending doom or promise miraculous answers to prayer or. Prior to the year 2000, how many LDS families left good jobs in the cities for a safe, self-sustaining life in Manti, Utah—or Jackson County, MO for the more adventurous?

And what about stories of immediate answers to prayer over relatively trivial matters such as finding lost car keys right after praying? A more natural explanation, such as prayer opening a person’s mind to remembering where the keys  were left, allows for divine help without causing listeners to wonder why God performs miracles for some people, i.e. devout LDS, while ignoring others with greater needs—refugees in war torn lands, victims of natural disasters, etc. etc.

Miracles are rare and blessings are not always a reward for righteousness.  Matthew tells us, “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.” Maybe we should consider the unintended effect an FPS may have on a listener before relating it.

Closet Buddhist

My sister-in-law, a Zen-Buddhist, is the most spiritual person I know. Loving, kind, and generous, Passiko  radiates peace and love. She moved forward after the death of her only son, establishing a scholarship at his university to benefit other students. Her personal goodness stirred my interest in her philosophy at a time when my LDS faith was not meeting my spiritual needs.

The repetition of the same lessons, the same answers to every question started bothering me about 15 years ago. During the three-hour block each Sunday, I nearly wore my left wrist out checking my watch. General Conference lulled me to sleep within the first twenty minutes. Trying to be the best wife, mother, daughter, and teacher possible, to magnify my Church callings and to be a good friend and neighbor wound me up like a tether ball on a post. Frustrated instead of fulfilled, I felt as out of place at church as a closet gay at a Utah Republican family values meeting.

I tried yoga and while the stretches relaxed my body, the Oriental philosophy teased my Occidental mind. “The present moment is really the only one we have.” Wasn’t earth life only a tiny fraction of eternity? “You are not your thoughts.” Well, what else was I? “Clear your mind.” Wasn’t my mind supposed to be actively engaged all the time?

 Passiko recommended Sharon Salzburg’s Loving-Kindness when I quizzed her about Buddhism. A truly pivotal book. I read slowly, trying out the suggested exercises. I found the divine spark within myself. It didn’t withdraw when I wasn’t worthy. Stopping and looking within through meditation helped me clear away delusions like fear and attachment that sometimes hide my true nature.

Todd, a three-time cancer survivor, led a meditation group I joined. Buddhism helped him learn to live in the present and to accept what he can’t change. “It just is,” was a favorite saying. Todd said he left Mormonism because, “I could never be good enough.”

Guilt often drives Mormons who have a list of hundreds of commandments and admonitions to keep. Buddhism is non-judgmental. Behavior is defined as skilled and unskilled actions rather than good and bad. Unskilled actions bring natural consequences rather than divine disapproval. In Buddhism, the practice is what is important, not the expectation of achieving enlightenment or other reward. I find this more selfless than doing good to gain a higher spot in the celestial kingdom.

A fundamental precept of Buddhism is transience—everything changes. Mormonism emphasizes permanence—our intelligence has always existed, our reunited spirits and physical bodies will last for eternity, family relationships will last forever. While I like the idea of permanence, experience shows me that all things change, even family relationships. Children grow up and move on, parents age, roles reverse.

The Buddha taught his followers to avoid blind faith. He recommended testing each teaching by applying it to one’s own life. If it brings peace and happiness, it is a true principle for you. If it fails to do that, it is not true for you at this time no matter who said it or where it is written.

I maintain my LDS affiliation, accepting the best of both religions. More traditional Mormons can incorporate Buddhist principles they like within the framework of LDS faith. Many Buddhist teachings actually complement LDS doctrine.   As Joseph Smith said, “We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true ‘Mormons.’”

Grieving

I still think of Dad frequently although he died three years ago at age 90. The hospice group which cared for him at the end offered grief counseling. I turned them down. I had been grieving for Dad for two years. When his ordeal ended, peace and relief filled my being.

Dad deserved to pass peacefully in his sleep before the ravages of age destroyed his independence. Dad was the kind of person who would stop and hand a $100 bill to a distraught woman weeping as firemen struggled to extinguish the blaze destroying her home.

He cared for my young, dying mother until cancer consumed her life, then cared for my younger brothers and me while running the family business.  He remarried to give us a mother and submitted to a miserable relationship for years—unwilling to hurt my half sister by leaving.

If the point of suffering is to teach and refine the human spirit, Dad earned a Ph.D. in life experience. The only thing he ever asked for himself was not to become a burden to his children. Yet God did not see fit to take my dad before a series of strokes and blocked carotid arteries eroded his reasoning capacity to match his weakened body.

For two years before his death, I grieved for the father I’d lost: The father who followed the news and scoffed at the misbehavior of elected officials—George’s Bush’s deficit spending—Bill Clinton’s unzipped trousers. The father who could haul limbs from a tree without straining his back and hiding his pain until he couldn’t walk to the bathroom. The father who didn’t nap all day and wake at midnight wondering why it was still dark.

As I cared for Dad, I grieved for myself. That I could not make him better. That I found his care a burden. That I too am mortal. That I must either die while life is still a joy or decline into helplessness.

Did I receive benefits from caring for Dad? Of course. I am grateful for his courage and for his gentle, loving disposition which lasted nearly to the end. I’m grateful I learned how difficult taking an elderly parent into your home is. I will never do that to any of my children. But I wish Dad hadn’t paid the price for my learning. He didn’t owe me anything. He deserved a merciful death.

Politics and Religion

A beneficent God would have thrown an Iron Curtain or at least a bamboo screen between church and state in America this week. I knew where the week was headed on Tuesday morning when George glanced at the SL Trib headlines and yelled, “Harry Reid’s going to be excommunicated!” George relishes drama. But Reid’s statement (in a private meeting) that the resources of the Church “could have been put to better use,” does raise eyebrows about a Church that has not known what to make of Reid, the highest ranking Mormon ever in US government,  even before he criticized the Prop 8 involvement.

Had Reid been a Republican, he would have replaced the Osmonds as the preferred LDS celebrity success story the moment he became Senate Majority Leader. Mormons have never been shy about recognizing achievements of fellow Saints. Ezra Taft Benson and Esther Peterson, who served in Eisenhower’s Cabinet 50 years ago, are still used as symbols of Mormon success in public office. Stewart Udall who served in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations merits no mention. Besides being a liberal Democrat, Udall was a Jack Mormon.

But Reid is a devout Mormon, a convert. He arranged for last summer’s meeting  of Pres. Monson and Dallin Oaks with President Obama— an important PR photo op for the Church. A Virginia source tells me he arranged for LDS missionaries to serve as waiters at a dinner meeting of UN delegates from around the world. He publicly identified the missionaries as representatives of his church and urged UN delegates to allow them to work in their countries. Reid even dresses in the undertaker-conservative suits and talks in the slow measured cadence of a General Authority. The reticence of Church leaders and rank and file Mormons to claim Reid as their own smacks of politics.  

Reid’s gentle criticism of the Church involvement in Prop 8 will not affect his standing in a Mormon community which quietly hopes he will go away. And while Oaks’ recent BYU-Idaho address was likely not specifically aimed at Reid, the apostle’s over-the-top analogy likening backlash against Church involvement in Prop 8 to persecution of African-Americans during the Civil Rights struggle kept the religious/political pot boiling. Current Church leaders need a gentle reminder, the kind which Pres. Hinckley mastered, to put Prop 8 behind us and move forward on less divisive issues. As the old saying goes, “Mixing religion and politics is like mixing ice cream and manure. It doesn’t hurt the manure, but it sure makes a mess of the ice cream.”

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