An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for March, 2010

You’re Not the Person I Married

We all have dirty little secrets we don’t share while dating. I certainly never informed George that I like to eat pie in bed. Nor did he confess he was so thrifty that he’d drain our car radiator every night rather than buy antifreeze.

And do we even want to see the real person behind the guy or girl who is going to make all our dreams come true? Try telling a man that his sexy girlfriend really won’t be a wife who is interested in having sex every night and more on weekends. Or try warning a woman that her fun-loving boyfriend may not transition into a husband willing to trade his skiing and workout time for a steady job that pays the mortgage.

Even if you marry your soul mate, no guarantee exists that you will grow together rather than apart. I know several women who married young, then returned to school as their children grew older. As these women grew and gained confidence, they were no longer the helpless girls their husbands had married—and they’re now divorced.

And how does a guy cope if his shapely bride balloons into a size 3X wife? It’s easy to say physical appearance shouldn’t affect the way we feel about a spouse, but, for most of us, it does.

In Mormon circles a spouse’s loss of belief in LDS doctrines can threaten a marriage. I have a young relative who has lost her conviction that Mormonism is the only true religion. She fears telling her husband who made great personal sacrifice for their family to obtain a temple sealing. The only choice she sees is to attend church with her family and keep quiet about her doubts—a lonely way to live.

A perceptive person has noticed that the Bible actually deals with the problem of finding out you’re not married to the person you thought you were. Jacob marries Leah believing he is marrying Rachel. While Jacob never loves Leah as completely as he does Rachel, he accepts his marriage to both.

But was it such a big deal for Jacob? After all, he could ditch Leah for Rachel whenever he chose. Modern American marriages (unless you’re FLDS) don’t allow that option. We have to deal with whichever personality pops up in a single spouse. And that’s probably a cinch compared to dealing with multiple personality facets in multiple spouses.

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See You in Heaven

Mitch Albom has written about the possibility of reuniting with choice people in heaven. I love the idea, but I’m not sure it’s going to happen. My mind entertains the possibility that Richard Dawkins, a vocal atheist, is right and there is no heaven. Or, that if heaven does exist, only the elect or the righteous will gain admittance. For those reasons, I’ve decided I’d better spend time with friends and loved ones while we’re still here.

A phone call last week announcing the death of a friend I’d been meaning to call jolted me with the consequences of procrastination. And while it’s nice to think I might get a second chance to tell her how much I care about her in heaven, that event is less than certain. What is certain is that I could have called her a couple of weeks earlier—and I didn’t.

George and I each lost aunts whom we didn’t take the time to visit when they were hospitalized. Of course, we’d have made the time if we’d known for sure this was their last illness—but we didn’t. An opportunity in heaven to make up for failure to visit, console, and express love to a person before they’ve left this life appeals to me. And don’t you think apologizing will be easier in heaven? Surely nobody’s going to hold a grudge beyond the pearly gates. Maybe the key to admittance to heaven is the realization of the long list of people to whom we should make amends. Maybe hell is finding out there is no opportunity to make amends beyond this life.

I think it’s time I went on People Finder to locate some long-lost friends. I’d like to meet them in heaven, but it’s risky to wait .And, assuming there is a heaven, the person I’d most like to meet there is Richard Dawkins—just to see the shock on his face.

Prilosec and a Burning in the Bosom

Samuel WoolleyTaylor wrote a very funny novel, Heaven Know Why, which features a devout Mormon bishop who expects the Holy Ghost to guide his every decision. The bishop’s less devout wife can only influence him by entering a closet next to his office, putting her face into an empty milk can, and, in her deepest voice, delivering messages from the Holy Ghost.

And I can see why the husband was fooled. If a message is important enough to send via the Holy Ghost, it ought to be sent in an audible voice—not just a burning in the bosom which may be confused with heartburn.

I don’t know how much other Christian faiths emphasize listening to the Holy Spirit, but the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost is a promise Mormons rely on—sometimes with less than desirable results.  

I know I entered parenthood firm in the conviction that I could raise a perfect child, making no mistakes as a parent, so long as I fasted and prayed over every decision. By the time Wort rolled over for the first time, I knew parenthood was more complex than I’d ever imagined, and the Holy Ghost couldn’t possibly keep up with the amount of inspiration I needed to raise even a non-perfect child.

But, old habits die hard. George and I relied on prayer and a strong feeling the Lord was guiding us when he quit a good job in Seattle and we moved to rural Utah. This was during the ‘70s when potential Cold War destruction and the devastation of the Apocalypse loomed large in Mormon consciousness. The tiny community in which we settled was filled with fellow refugees from the evil world beyond the borders of Zion. We took what low-paying jobs we could find and hunkered down with our food storage awaiting the end—which didn’t come. After a few years, we all pulled our heads out of the muck and moved on. I don’t know about our neighbors, but this time George and I didn’t rely on the spirit to guide us. We looked for jobs in the city, found them, and fled.

In a way, relying on the spirit counters the basic LDS doctrine of agency. Growth—spiritual, intellectual, social, and physical—comes through exercise. A God who answers every prayer and guides every decision would be like an over-protective parent—one who raises a clinging, dependent child. And listening for guidance that God has not seen fit to send can lead us to confusing our own feelings of fear or desire with divine inspiration.

Flooding the Earth

Like many other Mormons I’ve been less than diligent about fulfilling my responsibility as a member missionary. My first attempt was over 40 years ago while teaching in Wyoming. A colleague from Chicago asked me about the Church. I leaped on this opportunity to present him with a Book of Mormon. He disappointed me by returning it a few days later saying he’d skimmed through it and saw a lot of repetition from the Bible—something I really hadn’t noticed when I’d dutifully plowed through it on my own.

The Church insistence on the Book of Mormon as a missionary tool seems odd considering the apparent number of members who find it less than a compelling read. If it’s really so fascinating and testimony building, why do members need to be continually exhorted to read it?

Shortly after my first bestowal of a Book of Mormon was returned, the Church encouraged members to send Books of Mormon (they were 50 cents then) instead of Christmas cards to nonmember friends. Statistics indicated that every Book of Mormon given out resulted in a baptism within 10 years, although not necessarily of the person to whom you gave the book. Mailing books intimidated me less than giving them face-to-face, so I sent them to four or five teacher friends, happy to know that church membership would be increased by four or five people within a decade. I really never felt comfortable about participating in more active missionary efforts because asking people to join my church was too much like asking them to be more like me.

The push to get members to give out Books of Mormon must have been effective; the Church grew rapidly throughout the 1960s and ‘70s even without further help from me. But the pressure increased. I finally salved my conscience before moving from Seattle by gifting neighbors with Books of Mormon. Knowing I was leaving made it easier.

That was 30 years ago and this time my efforts paid off. The Wrednekers were not my favorite neighbors. It wasn’t the marijuana growing in their garden or the parties with Mrs. Wredneker being chased around the house by drunken guests and Mr. Wredneker too stoned to care. It was the daughters telling about their activities with boy cousins that caused me to restrict our children’s association with theirs. At any rate more than ten years later, our daughter met someone at BYU who knew the Wrednekers. They had joined the church and were members of his ward. As far as I know, the Wrednekers were the only baptisms resulting from the Books of Mormon I’ve distributed.

Flooding the earth with the Book of Mormon was a Church theme throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. Our daughter who served a mission in France recalls handing out free Books of Mormon to uninterested people, then walking back through the streets and noticing the same books stacked on trash barrels. Except for a few highly motivated individuals, I don’t see a huge effort being made now to set the earth awash in copies of the Book of Mormon.

Reverence: Awe, Respect, Shame

One of the wisest books I’ve read is Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue by Paul Woodruff, professor of humanities at the University of Texas. Woodruff defines reverence as:

  • Being in awe of something or someone greater than oneself.
  • Respect for other people.
  • Shame at not living up to common standards of virtue.

  In his words, “Reverence is the virtue that keeps leaders from trying to take tight control of other people’s lives . . . that keeps human beings from trying to act like gods.”

 In looking for personal examples of reverence beyond keeping quiet in church, I admit to feeling awe for busy young mothers balancing diapers, dinners, dishes, discipline and diminutive income with love, teaching, full or part time jobs, and church callings. I know I did it at one time, but I can’t even imagine tackling it again as I watch my daughter and young mothers in my neighborhood.

 I respect parents who faithfully endure three hours of church meetings each Sunday because they believe it benefits their family. I also respect those who have left the LDS fold to find spiritual sustenance in other pastures.

 I feel shame when a news program shows me Ethiopian women scooping water from puddles for cooking and drinking, then washing the family laundry in the same muddy pools. Nobody should have to live that way. What can I do to change their situation? What should I be doing?

 By Woodruff’s definition, recognizing ridiculousness is not irreverent. I suspect he would not find Jon Stewart’s and Steve Colbert’s attacks on Glenn Beck irreverent.  Beck’s most outrageous assertions certainly merit criticism. Not criticizing wrong-doing is cowardice rather than reverence.

 And this brings me to the question: Are Mormons overly sensitive about questioning, criticizing or even joking about church history, doctrine, or cultural practices? Zoe Murdock, a Mormon novelist commented in an interview that she’d grown up feeling it was wrong to even ask questions about the church.      I suspect the J. Golden Kimball stories are about as close as most Latter-day Saints dare come to attacking official pomposity.  One of my favorite J. Golden stories has him replying to a General Authority who criticized Kimball’s family: “According to your idea of an exemplary family, the Lord God Almighty hasn’t made such a hell of a success.”

 Sure we want to be a reverent people—to feel awe for a power higher than our own, to respect the humanity of all people, to respect all of God’s creations, and to feel shame when we do not meet standards of human decency. But am I out-of-line to profess doubt that God twitters President Monson throughout each day, directing his every decision and inspiring his every utterance?

Young Women’s Conference 2010–My Suggestions

I hated attending YW Conference with my teen-aged daughters. They giggled and whispered throughout, and I sometimes joined them. Two hours of tedium strained our reverence. And I’m not sure any messages they managed to hear benefited them. The focus on marriage and motherhood as the only goals for LDS girls probably pushed Lolly into a radical feminist stance. The promised bliss of temple marriage may have blinded Jaycee to the need to check qualifications beyond a temple recommend in choosing her husband.

I don’t know how much the conference messages have changed since I last attended, probably not much. Just five years ago, Lolly served as YW president in her ward in upper New York State. She despaired that her Laurels set goals only for admission to BYU and marriage. Very bright girls not accepted at BYU elected to stay home and enroll in a local community college rather than attend one of the excellent state universities out in the sinful world.

I wish the message to the YW could be less Utah-centric, less fear-based. Sure there is evil in the world and immorality exists on college campuses—including BYU if you know where to look. But secluding  herself from the world while waiting for Santa to drop a suitable mate down the chimney is not the best  choice for most young women.

Why not include women from outside the Wasatch Front to speak to the YW? And I don’t mean a speaker who describes being the only Mormon girl in her high school and struggling with loneliness while maintaining her high standards. Let’s have some inspiring stories from women taking  advantage of opportunities outside Mormon culture. Mormon Women: Portraits & Conversations by James Kimball and Kent Miles interviews women from nine different countries who illustrate a spectrum of successful lives—SAHMs, career women with children, single moms, and women without children. All these women value family and church, but their contributions have not been limited to that sphere. Good works initiated by these women range from starting orphanages in Nepal to driving truck loads of humanitarian supplies through the war zone to Bosnia.

And why limit role models to Mormon women? Why not highlight some of the Christian and Moslem Liberian women interviewed in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell? These women united to exert pressure on both government and rebel leaders to end the bloody civil war in Liberia in 2003. I can’t think of a better example of upholding family values than ending a war which killed over 200,000 and fostered rape of women and girls and kidnapping of boys for child soldiers .

And how about some examples of women who have created successful lives despite youthful moral transgressions? I’m thinking of a classmate who got pregnant and married at age 15. She and her husband accepted their responsibilities, accomplished educational and financial goals, raised a good family, and both contribute to their community. And no, I don’t think recovery stories will influence girls to sin now, repent later. A girl dumb enough to think struggling to finish high school in the role of wife and mother while her friends attend the prom and plan for college or jobs and their own paychecks following graduation cannot be influenced by anything spoken at YW Conference. I do think girls need to learn that transgression need not ruin their lives. God never abandons His children.

Like a few others, I’m making suggestions for YW Conference speakers.  Being an optimist, I’m awaiting a thank you-call from headquarters.

A Church for the 21st Century

While visiting our son in Seattle last week, we attended Mars Hill Church with his family. Mars Hill, an evangelical church, has experienced almost 300% growth in the 5 years since our son joined. With an average Sunday attendance of 9,000, Mars Hill defies the tradition of the Pacific NW as one of the least religious areas of the US. I can’t help but contrast this growth with the flat or negative growth of the Mormon Church in the US during the same period.

Charismatic pastor Mark Driscoll is certainly a factor in the appeal of Mars Hill to a mostly under age-40 population, but I think the main appeal is the message:

  • Election and predestination. A person recognizing Christ as Savior is probably one of the elect whom God has chosen to save. Mars Hill urges members to keep the commandments through love and gratitude for God’s grace rather than fear of jeopardizing one’s salvation.
  • Scriptural inerrancy. In an age of rapid change, scripture offers dependable guidance and comfort.
  • Male leadership. Driscoll frequently exhorts males to—“Be a man. Get a job. Get married and raise a family.” Of course, men love the idea of being head of the family, but Mars Hill also attracts young women looking for men interested in marriage.
  • God as a personal friend. Prayers use informal language to talk to God as a real person.
  •  “We’re all sinners.” The message that we don’t have to be perfect to merit God’s love and that God expects us to accept each other obviously helps persons trying to recover from destructive life choices.
  • Plain talk from the pulpit. Driscoll pulls no punches when he instructs men to get a job, earn a living, and provide for a family and tells women to let men be the head of the household while they stay home, have babies, and raise children. Offended people sometimes walk out of meetings—but obviously more people find than leave this church.

Certainly, Driscoll’s biblical interpretations are not new to many church goers, although they may be new to his target audience. Besides the message, the format of this church appeals to a young audience:

  • Contemporary music—a band with drums and electric guitars—the congregation standing, singing, hand clapping and foot tapping.
  • Agency—members are told what needs to be done in the church and volunteer to serve where their talents and interests lie. No Sunday School classes. Instead, evening and early-morning community groups led by volunteers meet in members’ homes or coffee shops to provide in-depth study, prayer, and socializing.  Members choose their own groups or no groups. Group leaders and members choose their own focus and curriculum. Sunday worship services are held in the mornings and late afternoons with members choosing the time that meets their needs.
  • Well-run nursery and children’s program during the sermon.

The Mormon Church is at the point that all organizations eventually reach—innovation may cost more members than it will gain. Mars Hill is a new church led by a 40-year-old, blue-jeaned, technology-adept leader who has everything to gain and nothing to lose by tackling tough issues with plain talk.

The question arises: What is God’s role in this? Since God is the author of all good, a new church which appeals to people seeking meaning in life and which leads them to a responsible, benevolent way of life must be serving God’s purpose. And since many denominations besides the Mormon Church are in stagnant or declining growth mode, we should probably give thanks when new churches arise to fill the needs of people estranged from traditional approaches.

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