An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for February, 2010

Dad’s Funeral: He’d Have Loved It!

My dad was of the era that measured a person’s worth by the size of his funeral. Uncle Duemore attended funerals religiously because he wanted people to attend his. Apparently, it didn’t occur to my uncle that his friends would be unable to return the favor. Anyway, my dad wanted a nice funeral, and we tried to give him one. It couldn’t be a large funeral because Dad had outlived most of his family and friends. He’d been gone from his home ward for three years, which cut that crowd down, and he had only three living children and eight grandchildren to fill up the descendants’ seats.

Neither my siblings nor I are traditional Mormons, but I knew Dad wanted a Mormon funeral and asked the bishop of his former ward to conduct the service. My brother and I chose to speak and I invited the grandchildren who wanted to participate. My ex-sister-in-law, who is a traditional Mormon, asked who was going to deliver the sermon. I explained that for Utah funerals, the family generally spoke about their loved one rather than having a doctrinal speech by a church official. 

But Dad got a sermon. My niece, Brania, filled in for the missing LDS authority on the program and delivered a long, dry sermon on the plan of salvation. Sitting with the other speakers and facing the congregation, I noticed my cousins and Dad’s old neighbors nodding away as they waited for the lighter family stories. My niece, Sootha, did not oblige. She was the only one of the grandchildren to attend BYU and not live with her grandfather. She confessed to not having known Grandpa very well, but loved him and wished she’d gotten to know him better. Okay, my nieces’ talks weren’t great, but my own kids would do better. And Lolly did. She had lived with Dad for the two years she was at BYU and shared warm, touching anecdotes. We should have concluded the service at that point.

But no, our sons took their turns. Techie woke the audience up with his memories of Grandpa—including their farting contests. My cousins smiled as I rolled my eyes—hey, Techie was too old for me to write his talks.  Then Wort took the podium. Wort had converted to an evangelical church a couple of years before. He gave examples of his grandfather’s good life and sterling character, then electrified the congregation as he tearfully posited the question of where Grandpa—who lacked the correct belief in the Trinity and a real Christian baptism—was at this moment. My face burned with fury. How could Wort proselytize for his new faith at his grandfather’s funeral? Nobody was asleep now. I doubt anybody present had ever before heard a funeral speaker speculate that the deceased was in Hell.

But something calmed me down—maybe Dad’s spirit was there. The humor of the situation replaced my anger. Not so for Dad’s bishop sitting next to me. I felt him stiffen as Wort spoke. When he arose to give the concluding remarks, he made it clear to Wort and the rest of us that he knew where Dad was—in Paradise—reunited with family members to whom he was sealed.

I hope Dad’s spirit was at his funeral. He’d have loved it—and so would his brothers and friends who preceded him in death.  I hope they were allowed to return for a quick chuckle at mortals who think we know so much about life and death .

Church of the Laid-back Saints

I used to speculate about the first three things I would do when I got to be in charge of the church:  1) Throw out the organs—use peppy piano accompaniment to revitalize our dirge-like hymn singing.  2) Excommunicate the Curriculum Correlation Committee —for driving droves of life-long members from church by the endless repetition of “milk before meat” lessons.  3) Burn the synthetic lace tablecloths “decorating” tables in Relief Society rooms.

Obviously, I’m not going to get into a position of authority to enact my recommendations anytime soon. That’s why I was so captivated when my cousin, Thinker, decided to start his own church—The Church of the Laid-back Saints—with beginning and ending times within the same hour and tithing optional.

I have a few more suggestions for Thinker.

  • Dress code:  Neckties banned. Dresses optional for both genders—why should only women be allowed the privilege of cool, bare legs and thighs in the summertime?
  • Refreshments:  Juice and muffins, bagels or donuts served after Sacrament Meeting.
  • Optional Sunday activities: Children’s activity classes with a broader curriculum than folding arms and sitting quietly. In-depth scripture study groups for adults wanting to dive into deep study. Less studious adults can continue munching donuts and chatting, lead children’s activities, or go home.
  • Paid music directors:  Developing ward musical talent and appreciation will be much more successful with paid professionals in charge.

Thinker actually proposed replacing the water with wine for the sacrament, but that sounds like heresy to me.

The Bible Tells Me So

Mormons have a relatively liberal stance toward biblical inerrancy. The 8th Article of Faith (“We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly . . .”) gives us considerable leeway. One verse we do take absolutely literally is the 3rd Commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. . . .” Mormons extend this commandment to include any swearing or vulgar language. Uttering the name of deity without folded arms and bowed head might bring lightning bolts upon the blasphemer—and no one wants to be within range of collateral damage. Utah high school students often substitute “heck” and “darn” for the biblical words when reading from literature— just to err on the side of caution. Curiously, “Good heavens!” is an acceptable exclamation while “Good hell!” is not. This could be a point of logic. “Good hell” being an obvious oxymoron.

 During my Utah teaching career, I saw teachers from out-of-state confused when students objected to their use of the phrase, “Oh, my god.” Outside Mormon circles, that phrase is not considered swearing. To Mormons, Exodus 20:7 means just what it says, but other religious denominations interpret the commandment to mean keeping vows made in God’s name.

While Mormons don’t understand how other faiths fail to interpret the 3rd Commandment literally, we disagree with the prohibition of Harry Potter books and movies proscribed by Jehovah’s Witnesses and some Baptist denominations. Interpreting OT passages condemning witches and witchcraft to include harmless children’s stories seems silly to us. And while Mormons discourage divorce, we do not interpret “what . . . God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” to prohibit divorce entirely as Roman Catholics do. Much diversity exists in what churches choose to interpret literally from the Bible. Fortunately, no churches I’m aware of take Matt. 5:29-30 seriously. At least, I haven’t seen too many one-eyed and one-handed people walking around.

Me? Well, I’m still looking for the church which interprets Deut. 14:22-26 literally. I’d be quite happy to take my tithes to the place God has appointed and “bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after . . . eat there before the Lord . . . and rejoice. . . .”

Saving the World with “Love You. Good-bye”

Statistics revealing world population at 6.8 billion and increasing by 220,000 each day scare me. Clearly, the world is already crowded with increasingly fierce competition for finite supplies of fuel and water. Adding ever more people is likely to make the human race even more testy and trigger happy. And I, for one, have an aversion to war and violence as a means of population control.

For several years I’ve pondered whether governments will eventually be forced to make unpopular decisions such as sneaking birth control meds into municipal water supplies. For a while, I had hopes that mandatory sex ed in US schools would turn American teens off sex the way education turns them off history, math and other subjects. So far, that hasn’t occurred.

Now hope for a solution to the population explosion appears from an unexpected source. LDS Relief Society President Julie Beck assuaged my fears in a recent address to CES faculty. According to Pres. Beck, LDS youth are reluctant to marry and have children because they don’t know how to form lasting relationships. So much of their young lives has been spent connected to iPhones and video games that they have not learned to communicate with and bond to real human beings.

Just think! Those omnipresent devices people use to block out the real human beings around them may save the planet.  Thank you Steve Jobs. You and your cohorts have saved the human race from extinction by over-breeding.

Angst: A Boon to Literature, A Burden to Religion

I spent months working through a revision of my Mormon-setting novel with my non-LDS writing group. I was anxious for their response. I hoped honest fiction about the tensions of a married couple working with a problem their church barely acknowledges would strike a universal chord and interest a mainstream publisher. My fellow writers surprised me with their antipathy toward the devout Mormon wife and their sympathy for her less religious, but pretty irresponsible spouse. As the wife wrestled with the difficulty of trying to create an ideal LDS family life with a non-ideal husband, my group kept hoping her solution would be to leave the church.

I was puzzled at this reaction until I realized that this is exactly how I respond to church/protagonist conflicts in non-LDS faiths. Reading Angela’s Ashes, I want Frank McCourt’s mother to leave a church that insists she can neither divorce an alcoholic husband nor use birth control to prevent the birth of children who will die of malnutrition and disease. Reading The Chosen, I want Danny Saunders to break away from his oppressive Hasidic upbringing and live his own life. Reading the news, I want FLDS women and children to flee from that heavy-handed theocracy.

Now, I don’t find myself wishing for a protagonist to abandon a religion that is peripheral to the story. The foolish clergymen in Jane Austen’s novels provide comic relief and do little harm to the main characters. And religion that contributes to happiness is also palatable. I enjoy escaping to Jan Karon’s idyllic, church-centered village of Mitford and following Father Tim, the Episcopal priest whose life revolves around his church and parishioners. But a serious work requires conflict and tension. And while conflict and tension make for good reading, they’re lousy PR.

Plenty of tension exists within the LDS Church and fuels the writing of wonderful novels that never get published. Most of the conflict seems to be with enshrined traditions that may have little or no doctrinal significance and which may be changed in the future—priesthood for those of African descent comes to mind. Currently, the LDS position on homosexuality is mellowing. President Hinckley acknowledged scientific evidence that homosexuality may have a genetic basis. And in 2009, the church spoke out for full civil rights for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.

These examples make me wonder if the church couldn’t officially change policy on other existing traditions without causing doctrinal harm. Traditions causing the most angst for devout Mormons include: The subservient role of women, emphasis on attaining (or appearing to attain) an idealized standard of family perfection, the busyness that reaching this goal entails, and not allowing non-temple recommend holders to witness sons’ or daughters’ weddings.

When Mormons privately speak of what Church membership means to them, they usually talk about the love and sense of community they feel with one another and the concept of eternal families. I suspect these are the core values for most Mormons and I think these core values would be enhanced by de-emphasizing some of the practices which set us apart from the world in a negative way. Reducing angst in members would also make the church more attractive to outsiders. The downside would be drying up Mormon culture as a potential source of serious literature.

Suffering–But Not in Silence

Suffering—But Not in Silence

If, as many Mormons believe, adversity is the way God teaches us important lessons, my family has enjoyed a fine education. And I do mean enjoyed. For members of my family, suffering is the food of life, meant to be generously shared. Grandma Grypemor probably started it. My childhood memories of Grandma include listening to how poor Uncle Ranch had married a barren woman who not only failed to provide offspring, but refused to live anywhere near Grandma. And then Aunt Loosy married a guy who expected her to leave her widowed mother and live with him. A bachelor neighbor who threw wild parties on Saturday nights gifted Grandma with much suffering. She returned the favor to a couple of his departing guests who staggered to her door one night asking her to call a cab for them. Grandma poked a shotgun in their faces and they beat a hasty retreat grumbling, “That crazy old woman’s going to shoot us!”

Suffering skipped my parents’ generation, but landed full force on our youngest son. Techie suffered dreadfully from growing up with three older sisters and neglectful parents. I felt sorry for him until he went on stage to reveal our family secrets. And no, I didn’t encourage his sisters to tie him to a tree in the backyard after school and leave him until I got home. And, by the way, all of our children were born in wedlock. And yes, I’m really glad I’m not personally acquainted with the sort of people who attend Open Mic Nights.

Probably the best sufferer in my family is my cousin Reuben. When Reuben’s wife left him for a new bedfellow, Reuben decided suicide was the only remedy for his pain. He backed his pick-up truck and camper into the barn out of sight, crawled into the camper, shut the doors and windows, turned on the propane and lay on the bunk—ready for the end. Either the propane was weak or the camper wasn’t airtight, because Reuben finally got tired of waiting. He struggled to his feet to check the time. Since the camper inside the barn was pretty dark, he struck a match to look at the clock. At that moment Reuben learned that no matter how painful a life situation is, it can always get worse. If marital infidelity isn’t causing enough pain, add third degree burns and a burned-down barn into the equation.

I never really got the hang of enjoying suffering. Guilt detracted from the pleasure.  And for that, I blame Dr. Spock and Mother’s Day programs. Raising bed wetters should be enough suffering for anybody, but Dr. Spock upped the ante, blaming the malady onto domineering mothers. Apparently, my bossing the kids and George around was just asking for loads of laundry every morning. 

Then there were the Mothers’ Day programs at church. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think it’s worth a lousy petunia to sit through a series of talks by teens about how a panicked phone call brings a saintly mother rushing to school with gym clothes or lunch or whatever else the dumb kid forgot. The only time my kids ever listened reverently in Sacrament Meeting was on Mothers’ Day when they measured my parenting techniques against the ideal revealed from the pulpit. Other kids’ mothers didn’t say, “That’ll teach you!” when their kids forgot about a major science project until the night before it was due. Other mothers stayed up all night finishing the project for their child.

Yes, I’ve had my share of suffering, but I’m too embarrassed to brag about getting what I probably deserve.

Tithing–A Regressive Policy

As an inherent idealist, I’ve always thought tithing a lesser law for Saints too imperfect to live the Law of Consecration. A recent blog points out that tithing is a tremendous sacrifice for many lower-income Mormon  families. He’s right. We had no surplus to consecrate when we were raising five kids on one income. But we were expected to tithe 10% of our gross income and to pay budget and building offerings which raised our church obligations to nearly 14%.

Granted, budget and building offerings have been eliminated since then.  And several years ago I learned that Mormons are now considered full tithe payers if they pay on their after-tax income. I don’t know when that change was made; it was never announced at any church meeting I’ve attended. While we were raising our family, church talks and lessons emphasized paying on gross income.

My real problem with tithing is that it’s so regressive.  A multi-millionaire like Jon Huntsman, Sr. who takes in $10 mil a year, does not take food off the table in order to stuff $1 mil into a tithing envelope.  A beginning policeman, teacher or other entry level worker who donates 10% of a $2000 a month pay check may very well have to choose between food or shoes for the kids after paying tithing, house payment, car payment, gasoline, utilities, and health insurance.

Our family lived a barebones existence, foregoing luxuries like vacations and entertainment, but still our kids sometimes did without adequate school clothes and shoes while we faithfully paid church obligations first. We were promised blessings for paying, and it’s true that none of us got cancer and no earthquakes destroyed our home. Still, I’m not convinced that our proportionally greater sacrifice to ante up 10% of our over-stretched dollars gave us more blessings than high income members receive for their lesser sacrifice.

Obviously, the Law of Consecration had problems of administration—allowing members to decide what is surplus is even trickier than deciding whether to tithe on net or gross income. In the end, it’s a matter of letting the spirit guide. We had no surplus for many years while raising our kids. If I were in that situation again, I would obey the spirit rather than the letter of the law.

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