An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for December, 2009

Faith to Move Mountains or Maybe Molehills

Driving by the former Point of the Mountain dividing Salt Lake and Utah Counties, I realize that power shovels and dump trucks are as capable of moving mountains as faith. More so, I guess. I’m not aware of any mountains that have been relocated through faith—unless you count Hanuman flying the mountain of herbs from the Himalayas to provide healing to Ram’s army in the Ramayana legend.

When I was growing up, church lessons routinely featured stories of Apostle Matthew Cowley’s miraculous healing of Polynesian members in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. Even without the visuals used in contemporary church lessons, those stories flamed to life in my mind. I saw the dying man lying on a woven mat on the sandy floor of his grass shack. His wife and children weeping. No medical help available. A runner bursts through the doorway. An apostle from the Church of Jesus Christ has just arrived on the supply boat. Minutes later, Elder Cowley enters the hut and looks at the dying man. The Apostle hesitates to administer to such a hopeless case, but the man whispers, “If you bless me, I will live.” A sacred hush envelops the hut as Elder Cowley lays his hands on the man’s head and administers a priesthood blessing of healing. Witnesses barely open their eyes before the man sits up and asks for something to eat. His faith has made him whole.

My heart thumped at the conclusion of each story. If I had the undoubting faith of these Polynesians, my prayers would be answered like theirs. Yet, other church lessons emphasized God answering our prayers according to His greater knowledge. For our own good, sometimes the answer is no. Which was it—faith works miracles or God might say no?

BYU tilted my faith system to the miracle side. When our first child was born, I believed that, in answer to sincere fasting and prayer, God would provide total guidance for raising this precious child. A three-week bout of colic demonstrated that not even fervent prayers guaranteed trouble-free child-rearing. Faith and parenting were both more complex than I’d imagined.

Faith can provide comfort, but faith can also postpone action. Ray, a good man in our ward, was diagnosed with liver cancer. He received medical treatment, priesthood blessings, and a ward fast. Ray ran a construction business and his wife begged him to put his business affairs in legal order, just in case. Ray refused. In his mind, planning for the possibility of his death demonstrated lack of faith in the Lord’s power to heal. For Ray, death preceded the miracle. Relying on prayers and blessings left his business in a costly mess.

The D&C tells us “To some it is given to know . . . To others, it is given to believe . . . .” (46:12-13) No one “knows” about spiritual things in the empirical sense, but many believe—some strongly. Others can only hope or, less optimistically, wish. Maybe faith encompasses more than belief in God. Maybe faith includes belief in our own capacity to act. And maybe the faith to move mountains refers to the human capacity to design, build, and operate earthmovers.

Sanctity of Marriage–and All Family Relationships

Like most Utahns, I’ve been devouring news of the Susan Powell disappearance this month and suspect her husband of foul play. Naturally, a news item about their relationship caught my eye. According to the report, the husband had stopped attending LDS meetings and the couple had sought counseling. The counselor told Susan to set goals for herself and she set a goal that her husband would start attending church and preparing for a temple recommend or she would divorce him and take the kids. I hope the report erred—that a counselor would not fail to make clear to a client that she can only set goals for herself.

I fell into the trap of thinking I could coerce George into church activity when we were first married. Like many new wives, I saw my spouse as a work-in-progress. It didn’t hit me how counter-productive and even unrighteous my attempts were until a well-meaning bishop asked why I didn’t make my husband attend his priesthood meetings. Having our bishop assign responsibility to me for George’s church attendance awoke me to the futility of trying to manage another person’s spirituality—at least until we had children.

I took the responsibility to teach our children the gospel seriously—too seriously. When our daughter, Aroo, rebelled against church, I feared loss of testimony would be followed by moral transgression and a lifetime of heartache. I pleaded, ordered, and punished to force church conformity on Aroo. She finally told me she had never believed any of the stuff she’d heard at church. I berated myself for bad parenting—but my bad parenting wasn’t in failing to teach my child religious doctrine. My bad parenting was trying to force her to believe as I did. Curiously enough, several girls in her age group committed moral transgressions, and all changed direction, married in the temple, and conformed to the Mormon lifestyle. Maybe sin wasn’t the dominant factor in happiness and success as I had believed.

In an ironic twist, after 35 years of marriage George became the more faithful member while my belief in Mormon history and doctrine dwindled. When I no longer believed that God cared what kind of underwear I wore, George reacted with panic.  I was jeopardizing our chance to be together with our children as an eternal family. In the context of Mormon theology, my personal loss of belief affected George as much as myself. The second Article of Faith says man will be punished for his own sins and not for Adam’s transgression, yet George’s hopes for an eternal family depend on my belief and activity.

The doctrine of eternal families unifies a family of believers, but divides those with one or more non-believers. The Book of Mormon promises that everyone who earnestly seeks will gain a spiritual confirmation of its truth. Therefore a person who doesn’t believe must not be trying or must not be a righteous person. In practice, this justifies divorcing a spouse who cannot accept Mormon teachings.  I doubt many LDS marriages fail only because of religious differences, but church inactivity and adultery tend to be socially acceptable reasons for  Mormon divorces.

We Mormons would do well to adopt a teaching of Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh: “Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education.”

The best advice I’ve heard for dealing with family members of differing beliefs comes from a wise LDS woman who says, in essence:   We must love others for who they are, not for what they believe.

Jesus and Moses

                                                                                                                                                               

A print of Del Parsons’  Gentle Christ hangs on our family room wall, a gift from Moses S., a Utah State Prison inmate. Moses, an inmate tutor in the education program, brought the rolled print to my office when I taught at the prison. “I want you to have this,” he told me. He’d bought the picture, probably ordering it from the Distribution Center or Deseret Book, but was afraid to keep it. Inmates are relocated frequently and a change in cell mates might permit the picture he treasured to be desecrated or destroyed.

I accepted the print although I knew taking a gift from an inmate violated prison rules and could result in my termination. Moses attended LDS Institute and Sunday meetings, yet his feeling for the picture surprised me.

Every time I look at this picture of Jesus, I see Moses—a short, thin, hyper-active guy in his mid-thirties–complete with freckled nose, buzz haircut, and a grin like a first grader who’s just discovered the teacher’s cache of gummy worms. Descended from Mormon pioneer stock, Moses must have inherited nonconformity from his parents. Mormons name their sons Adam and Aaron, Jacob and Joseph, but never Moses.

 A thrill criminal, Moses was serving “the bitch” –the 10 to life sentence given to habitual criminals.  He regaled the education staff with tales of his life of crime: Stealing a semi-tractor cab and cruising around until he found an unattended trailer to hook onto— laughing at the thought of the driver coming out and finding his trailer missing in the morning. Robbing a bank with his cousin, being chased by the cops while listening to police reports on a portable shortwave radio, hiding behind a dumpster until a lone cop stopped on the other side to take a leak, then surprising him at this inconvenient moment, cuffing him to the dumpster with his own handcuffs, and stealing the cop car.

I look at the picture of Jesus gazing gently, knowingly, and wonder what Moses is doing now. Surely he’s been released. Has he stayed out of prison? Was his family there for him? I can’t imagine Moses working a routine job anywhere—not Moses with his love for thrills. I really don’t know how Moses would function in normal society. Not that he’s dangerous—he was just Peter Pan, a kid who never grew up. But he was an exemplary Mormon while in prison. I think he bought the print because of the eyes—eyes that could see through Moses’ stories, know he was a flake, and offer unconditional love.

Why I Don’t Wear Pants to Sacrament Meeting

Mormons are possibly the only religious organization in the U.S. who maintain traditional dress standards for Sunday worship service. I know it’s a trivial complaint, but I’d like to see the dress code for women expanded to include slacks for Sunday meetings. I suppose it will happen someday. We’ve already progressed beyond the strict code of the ‘70s. Back then—at least in my Seattle ward—dresses were mandatory for all meetings. A favorite excuse for less-active women we invited to Relief Society was, “I don’t own a dress.” Girls who showed up in pants for after-school Primary were seated in the foyer until after opening exercises to avoid desecrating the chapel.

These days Mormon males actually have the more rigid dress code. Boys officiating in the sacrament ordinances wear white shirts and neckties. Grown men follow suit—in suits.  Only mavericks who never hope to be called as bishop or high councilor show up in colored shirts. And no matter how many GQ issues feature photos of sports-jacketed, tieless hot males with open collars—that trend is taboo for most wards.

For women and girls the only requirement seems to be a skirt or dress. While the Aaronic Priesthood boys show up clean shaven and conservatively attired on Sundays, the Young Women, sporting bare legs, flip flips, and untucked shirts topping very short or very long skirts appear headed for a day at the beach. Sunday dress for the boys is driven by their priesthood office. No such motivation exists for the girls.

Mormon women and girls are routinely reminded to dress modestly. Here again, I make a pitch for pants. Pants do not ride up exposing a panoramic display of thigh when a woman sits. And pants are not slit up the back—sometimes to mid-thigh—to allow walking room. In addition to pants, even dressy ones, sleeveless clothing is also a no-no in Mormon culture. A woman, even if she has not been to the temple, causes head-shaking if she reveals bare upper arms. Curiously, the design of LDS garments allows full-busted women to expose considerable cleavage while being righteously attired.

Our son Wort invited us to attend his evangelical church when we visited him, and my first question was: Do I have to wear a dress?” “Only if you want to be stared at,” he said.

Wearing nice jeans, I worshiped comfortably at Wort’s church—at least until a female vocalist appeared on stage exposing a bare mid-drift. My staid Mormon eyes are fine with pants on women and colored shirts on men, but surveying belly buttons while singing hymns makes me uncomfortable. I know that’s a personal character flaw, but I’m stuck with it. And maybe that’s where we draw the line. Somehow, I doubt God cares much about how we dress at church— so long as we don’t make others uncomfortable. And that’s why I keep two skirts in my closet. I’ll let someone else challenge the comfort level of my ward members.

Mormon Girls–Only One Right Choice?

Mormon girls are raised with the knowledge that their role on earth is to marry a worthy priesthood holder in the temple and provide a happy home for as many children as possible. And I don’t fault that.  Most little girls do grow up hoping to be mothers someday. The problem with Mormon culture is that marriage and motherhood are the only roles toward which girls are directed, and marriage is not a goal over which a person has total control. Nice-looking, intelligent, personable women often fail to attract marriage proposals. And the competition for males in Mormon circles is intense. Mothers-who-know enroll three-year-old daughters in dance because without an early start, adolescent girls don’t make drill team or cheerleader—and the girls who do get the boyfriends.

No alternative to marriage and motherhood is considered for Mormon girls. Girls who haven’t snagged a husband by their mid-20s are counseled to be patient. The possibility that Heavenly Father  might not have a potential mate lined up to take every Mormon girl to the temple is never acknowledged. Girls who fall in love with a non-member face intense family pressure to break it off—no matter what sterling qualities the guy may possess.  After all, didn’t President Joseph F. Smith say he’d rather lay his daughters in their graves as spinsters than to see them marry outside the Church?

Many girls panic in their mid-twenties or even earlier and settle for an eternal companion  less compatible, less intelligent, less capable of earning a living than they’d hoped for. And too few single girls invest in education for what may be a lifelong career. A friend, Passen D’Prime, is typical. A returned missionary in her late 20s, she clung to her BYU ward after graduation, racking up huge credit card debts for clothes, make up, and gym fees. Despite her well-groomed physique, 18 and 19-year-old girls entering the ward each year snatched up the most eligible guys. Preoccupied with dating strategies, Passen missed the opportunity to obtain a doctorate. Still single in her 40s, that doctorate would have opened career opportunities and given her the financial security she lacks.

Well meaning relatives and church leaders often counsel a girl in her late 20s to be less picky, but they never mention alternatives to waiting for that temple-recommend-bearing prince (or frog) to appear. By the time girls reach their 30s, a glimmer of reality pierces the fog of institutionalized thinking. Choosing temple marriage appears to be choosing no marriage—at least no marriage in this life. Faithful single LDS sisters are promised marriage and children in the next life—for what comfort that’s worth.

Marrying outside the church is never suggested to a single LDS woman no matter how slim her chances for temple marriage. Dating non-LDS men is a line most Mormon girls can’t cross—not when they’ve been told their whole lives that marrying anyplace besides the temple courts marital discord in this life and a lesser reward in the next.

I’d like to see Relief Society lessons incorporate Chieko Okasaki’s marriage experience. As a Japanese-American living in Hawaii in the 1940s, Chieko recognized that the limited supply of eligible Mormon men in her area meant she might not marry. She met a non-LDS man with compatible values and the qualities she deemed essential in a husband. Prayer confirmed that God approved her decision. She married—not with the expectation that her husband might someday convert to her church (which he did), but with the knowledge that they would have a good marriage and family life even if he never changed his religion.

 We need to free young LDS women to consider another option: marrying a good man who will be a good husband and father even if he never joins the church.

Trespassing in Priesthood Meeting

Occasionally a member of the bishopric visits Relief Society, but women never violate the male sanctuary of LDS priesthood meetings. Not that there’s anything secretive or even very interesting going on there. It’s just a well-entrenched Mormon tradition. I’d never given much thought about what goes on in priesthood classes, although, from comments made by George and our son Wort, I figured they comprised about the same blend of lessons and friendshipping as Relief Society—minus the tears.

A few years ago I was called to be ward teacher improvement leader. The bishop extended the calling personally, emphasizing the need to make sure pure doctrine was taught in all ward classes. My responsibility was to visit classes and provide support to teachers and auxiliary presidencies both informally and in quarterly inservice meetings.

With normal enthusiasm for a new calling, I contacted the Primary president, discussed her goals and concerns, and made appointments with teachers for class visits. The next month, I contacted the Young Women’s president and visited YW opening exercises and classes. YM was next on my schedule. I contacted the YM president and scheduled a class visit with the Deacon Quorum adviser. When I walked into Priesthood opening exercises and took a seat next to George, all heads turned in my direction. The bishop stared and the counselor who was conducting ignored my presence. It felt kind of like being the only person in town who took the “No Pants Day” prank seriously enough to show up in public sans trousers. Should I have informed the bishop I would be attending priesthood opening exercises when making class visits? In a perverse sort of way, the situation tickled my funny bone. Here I was fulfilling my calling and being perceived as some kind of nut, possibly a threat to the divine order of LDS life. I accompanied the deacons to class and a neighbor asked George, “Does Ann want the priesthood?”

The next Sunday the bishop conducted priesthood opening exercises and made a point of saying, “Welcome Brethren. . .  and Sister Johnson.” He gave no explanation for my visit. In fact, he seemed to enjoy the mystification of his flock. With his own perverse sense of humor, he may have been watching to see if I’d flinch under the floodlight of attention.

After visiting the YM quorums, I visited Relief Society for a month. Then back to Priesthood for the Elders Quorum and High Priests Group. The HP Group leader had been a bishop in a previous ward, knew the church programs well, and responded positively to my request to visit. Some of the gentlemen had figured out the reason for my presence by then, but others gave George a “Can’t you control your wife?” look as I sat beside him. At least no one went to sleep that hour.

The EQ instructor was a personal friend and explained the purpose of my visit . Reb led a wide-ranging discussion more or less on the lesson topic. The difference in EQ and HP discussions was equal to the difference between recess and reading groups in elementary school. Possibly the EQ discussions would have been even livelier without a woman present. As an 18-year-old prospective elder, Wort arrived home from his first EQ class thoroughly disenchanted by the honesty of the good brothers. In discussing family responsibilities, some of the brethren reached the conclusion that divorce was a way for men to give themselves a pay raise. Those remarks sounded similar to some of the gripes against husbands I’ve heard in Relief Society. LDS men and women generally go along with the church definition of gender roles, but that doesn’t mean they are blind to the disadvantages.

The men in our ward eventually got accustomed to my periodic invasion of the third hour of the block. I found I enjoyed EQ and HP classes more than RS because, although the lessons were the same, I hadn’t memorized the men’s responses to every question.  I also liked not having to carry home cutesy handouts to help me remember the lesson.

Date Bait Dad

Adults often object to a widowed parent’s remarriage. But children generally long to have an absent parent, especially a mother, replaced—not realizing the odds of having a stepparent perfectly fill the natural parent’s role are nearly the same as the odds for Santa to stuff a 48”  TV down the chimney.

My dad was really old—in his 30s—when I wanted him to bring home a mother for my brothers and me. Knowing Dad couldn’t manage this on his own, I brainstormed ways to help. If only I’d been placed in Miss Spynster’s 7th grade core class, Dad could have met my teacher and decided to marry her. Miss Spynster was not attractive, but that shouldn’t matter to Dad; he wasn’t so hot either. I nearly died of embarrassment when a local TV station featured an IGA commercial showing my dad slouching in front of the family store in his grocer’s apron, looking nothing like a television personality.

I never made it into Miss Spynster’s class and passed into eighth grade with no prospects of a single female teacher to match with my dad. The family next door to us had a single daughter in her late twenties, also unattractive, but probably too young for Dad. My matchmaking attempts fizzled.

Sometime that year, my brother, Doogie and I became suspicious that our dad had taken matters into his own hands. Dad started coming home from the store after 10 p.m., showering and leaving. A light blue 1954 Chevrolet picked him up. Shocked that Dad had been able to find a girl friend and horrified that he hadn’t gotten our approval first, we chafed to know the mystery woman’s identity. One day a blue Chevy pulled into our driveway. A head of artificially auburn hair appeared from the car. It belonged to a woman in her early thirties who climbed our back steps with easy familiarly and tapped on the screen door. She held a jar of brown peaches with whole cloves floating around in some kind of syrup. “I brought you a jar of picked peaches I just canned,” she announced without introducing herself. I took the jar and stared at her. Didn’t this woman know pickles are made from cucumbers? As she backed from the driveway, Doogie and I repeated, “Pickled Peaches!” over and over, roaring with laughter. We hated her. What right did Pickled Peaches have dating our father without our consent?

Dad eventually married “Pickled Peaches” with our wholehearted approval. Their marriage ended in divorce after thirty-five years making Dad an eligible bachelor again in his seventies. With his shock of white hair, trim physique and neighborhood status, Dad was a godsend to the local widows. Sister Aved Mannchaser extended her attentions to me as well as to dad. Whenever I attended a funeral or wedding with Dad, Sister Mannchaser rushed up, clutched my hand, and pulled me close for a captive tete-a-tete.  “How are you doing? It’s so good it was to see you. Vard talks about you all the time.” Dad was not deceived about her motives. “Aved is just interested in getting some new drapes and a lot of repairs done to her house. And I’d have to deal with her family if I was dumb enough to marry her.” He hung a sign on his desk: “It’s better to be alone than wish you were.”

Dad lived alone and liked it until his body faltered.  At age eighty-eight he moved into an assisted living center near our home in Cedar City. The ratio of women to men in the facility was four or five to one, and the ladies made a rush on Dad. He joked about the women chasing him and his methods of discouraging them, so I was shocked to barge into his room one day and find him sitting on his bed with an elderly woman. She beamed and exclaimed, “Caught in the act!” Unable to imagine any kind of act two people their age could be caught in, I was at a loss for words. Evva Lufven, the snowy-haired lady friend, had just moved to Cedar City from Las Vegas. Before she left, she gave Dad a big lipsticky smack. Dad beamed while I stared. I couldn’t believe anyone would voluntarily kiss an 88-year-old man on his shriveled lips.

This time I was mature enough to respect Dad’s decision even though I questioned Evva’s judgment. It’s tough to think of a parent having romantic appeal and a sex life. Deep in our hearts, most of us prefer to believe we were created by immaculate conception rather than by an act of passion between our parents.

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