An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for May, 2010

Ever’thing I Do Is Wrong

I should have learned long ago that it’s impossible to make someone like you against their will. On the first day of 5th grade, I was placed in Mrs. Swapp’s class. My best friend, Linda, was placed in Miss Huber’s class. Both teachers were equally old and unattractive, but Mrs. Swapp had the reputation for being more strict and requiring more work. Before school Linda had announced to all and sundry that her mother would change her class if she landed under Mrs. Swapp’s tutelage. Not to be outdone, I announced that my mother would do the same. My mother, however, refused to contact the school for no better reason than my desire to be in Miss Huber’s class. Never a quitter, I set about finding reasons why I should not be in Mrs. Swapp’s class. I magnified her every glance in my direction into a scowl. Since Mrs. Swapp never criticized me, I reported exaggerated versions of her discipline techniques with other students. My mother, as mothers do, bought my stories. My dad, wiser—as dads often are, refused to back me.  Mrs. Swapp apparently sensed my hostility and tried to win me over—praising my work—even inviting me to dance with her at the school social—an ordeal I sullenly suffered through. The nicer Mrs. Swapp was to me, the more I hated her. I needed meanness to justify my dislike for being in her class.   

When I became a teacher myself, my bad behavior came back to bite me, as bad behavior always does—karma, the Buddhists say. George and I moved to a new state and I was hired late in the summer to teach an overflow kindergarten class housed in a church near the elementary school. Children living nearest the church were placed in my class. Few parents were pleased to have their child placed in a less adequate facility, but most went along with the principal’s decision. Except for one father who was a teacher in the district and a longtime friend of the other kindergarten teacher. His child deserved the best—which was not a new teacher in a makeshift church hall. I worked hard to provide a good program for my students, but this father remained hostile. His daughter became ill and was homebound for several weeks. I made a point of stopping by their home after school, to visit with the child and leave activities from class. I felt virtuous. I was being like Jesus—turning the other cheek. But I soon realized that my visits annoyed these parents. I was making their hostility seem unwarranted. Just as I wanted to dislike Mrs. Swapp, they needed reasons to dislike me, and I wasn’t cooperating.

I thought about continuing the visits just to spite these unappreciative parents, but that wasn’t being like Jesus. Jesus had plenty of undeserved enemies, but he knew a lost cause when he saw it. While he didn’t deliberately antagonize church officials, neither did he court their favor. Their dislike for him and his teachings was rooted in their own life experiences and expectations. He ignored belligerents to concentrate on those whose experiences and expectations opened them to his love and message.

Of course, we should make amends to people whom we’ve wronged, but sometimes life juxtaposes us with people who see us as impediments to their well-being through no action of our own. Forgiving and forgetting seems easier when human beings can pinpoint an actual wrong rather than a scapegoat upon which their mind has fixated.

Visiting Preaching

A friend told me about an experiment she tried as president of her ward Relief Society. She wrote a letter on paper approximating official church letterhead and read a fabricated statement from the First Presidency stating that the visiting teaching program was being discontinued. The immediate reaction from the sisters in her ward was relief and joy. But as they discussed the implications, concerns were voiced:

Keeping in touch with less active sisters.

Being aware of the needs of sisters in the ward. 

Meeting the needs of the aged and ill.

Just as my friend had hoped, the sisters in her ward concluded that while visiting teaching does take time from their busy lives, it fulfills a need. I forgot to ask my friend if anyone mentioned missing out on the lessons—for my money, the least valuable part of the visit.

The only part of visiting teaching I actually dislike is calling and setting up appointments when it’s my turn. I seldom attend Relief Society, so visiting teaching allows me to get acquainted with women with whom I likely wouldn’t have more than a nodding acquaintance. I find the VT messages trite at best, offensive at worse. Rather than reading quotes from general authorities about the topic, I initiate a conversation to let the sisters and my partner share their thoughts. Since I’m not invited into these women’s homes to present heresy, I refrain from comments that could be perceived as a teensy bit negative such as, “Elder So and So’s conference address was a load of crap.” Or even, “I don’t think we have to support our leaders when we think they’re wrong.” If I can’t find something constructive to say about the topic, I let my partner and our visitee do the discussing and confine my remarks to, “I’m glad you’ve had such comforting experiences with priesthood blessings.”

Receiving visiting teachers is a different situation. While I’m happy to meet with these sweet sisters, their conviction that my spotty church attendance means I am in need of conversion detracts from forming a friendship. After this month’s visit, when I was subjected to hearing the entire text of Boyd K. Packer’s conference address, I have decided to request that my VTs skip reading the lesson. “I’ve already read it. Why don’t you just tell me your own thoughts about it,” will hopefully not be offensive.

I know I’m not the only one who has problems with strictly following the visiting teaching program as it is set up. The answer, I believe, is to individually modify the program to fit our needs rather than to scrap it entirely. For me, the emphasis is on visiting—not teaching—and definitely not preaching.

“Our Motto Is Monotony”

Before teaching her next Relief Society presidency message, our RS counselor e-mailed the lesson topic to give sisters in the ward time to reflect upon it before class. A wonderful idea, I thought, until I read the chosen topic—“Home.” My enthusiasm dropped faster than the May 6 stock market plunge. I’ve already listened to at least 942 lessons on Home during my years of RS attendance. And I really wouldn’t mind a lesson on home that provided new insights—like the Buddhist notion of connection to the universe which means that home is every place. But I know that won’t happen.

Just as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel criticized Jewish services, Mormon services also: “. . . are conducted with pomp and precision. . . . Everything is present: decorum, voice, ceremony. But one thing is missing: life. One knows in advance what will ensue. There will be no surprise, no adventure of the soul; there will be no sudden burst of devotion. Nothing is going to happen to the soul. Nothing unpredictable must happen to the person who prays. He will attain no insight into the words he reads; he will attain no new perspective for the life he lives. Our motto is monotony.”

The official reason for keeping tight control of church curriculum is “to keep the doctrine pure.” But I wonder if the tradeoff—monotonous, uninspiring meetings—is really worth it. And I still hear plenty of weird beliefs from devout Mormons, so how pure is this approach keeping the doctrine?

What would I suggest for Sunday School and Relief Society curriculum?    

   Gospel Doctrine was exciting when the lessons were really on the scriptures—when we spent two years each on the Old and New Testaments, read the entire text, and learned about the culture for which these scriptures were written. Ignoring the cultural context and selecting only passages which support contemporary Mormon thought is not scripture study.

I enjoyed RS when the lessons were written by women for women. I don’t really need any more lessons on abstract topics: The Sacrament, The Sabbath Day, Fasting, Sacrifice. Lives of good people interest and motivate me—biographies that show imperfect human beings handling real challenges. Why can’t the RS manual be a biography of an exemplary woman? How about Carol Cornwall Madsen’s biography of Emmeline B. Wells? And why can’t we study the wisdom of non-LDS women? Anne Morrow Lindberg’s Gift from the Sea contains wonderful spiritual insights that complement LDS philosophy. How about a memoir by a woman who has overcome great obstacles? Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings deals with some unpleasant situations. She suffered sexual abuse as a child and was so insecure about her feminine sexuality at age 17 that she paid a boy to have sex with her—resulting in a teen pregnancy. I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings—but some LDS women are dealing with similar situations for themselves or their children. An honest discussion of contemporary problems which can help women deal with bad situations affecting themselves or others has more spiritual benefit than a fluff lesson about the joys of a perfect home.

Reducing church lessons to “milk before meat” that will not offend the “weakest of the weak” has resulted in lessons for the dumbest of the dumb. If the church wants to retain members, putting some meat on the menu would help.

United We Stoop

Nothing unites people more than hatred and fear. The dying Henry IV recognized this when he counseled Prince Hal (at least in Shakespeare’s version of history) to unify the country in his support by declaring war on France. I like the concept of national unity and I am willing to do my part by hating both Republican and Democratic politicians equally. I guess that qualifies me to join the Tea Party.

I think their idea of smaller government and lower taxes is excellent—so long as I can keep my Social Security and Medicare. I also like government supported roads, bridges, and dams. And I want to keep police and fire protection. I don’t want to jettison public schools for private because I want all American children to be educated well enough to keep the economy rolling and my monthly checks coming.

I also enjoy visiting state and national parks, so I want them funded. I like to fly, so public airports and air traffic controllers also make my Do Not Cut list. Criminals need to be caught and locked up, so prisons, courts, and the FBI all need to be included in the budget. I know it doesn’t work as well as it should, but I rely on the FDA to monitor foods and drugs I use. Border patrols and drug enforcement officers also need to be paid.

I can’t see letting children go without food or medical treatment even though it’s their parents’ responsibility to provide it, so don’t cut SCHIPS and food stamps. Some of my neighbors work at Hill Field in Utah. Cutting defense jobs would hurt them, so that’s out.

With all these priorities, how would I cut government and taxes? I guess the only thing we could really cut and not miss is—Congress.

Sharing the Gospel–Sort of

I thrust my hand forward for a handshake as I was introduced to Sean, a young Jewish man wearing a yarmulke and fringes. He drew away from my hand murmuring “Religious beliefs.” I had not heard of Jewish men being forbidden to shake hands with women, nor of orthodox Jews named Sean for that matter.  The Bible study group to which our son, Wort, had invited us was off to an interesting start. Sean was the brother of a member of Wort’s church. Was Sean a convert to Judaism or was his sister a convert to Christianity? I suspected that the sister, as well as Wort, hoped this meeting would facilitate Sean’s conversion to his sister’s faith.

The study topic was Luke 7:19-28—the account of John the Baptist sending messengers to ask if Jesus was “he who is to come.” I had vowed to say nothing during the meeting, since I’m not on the same page with Calvinists, but responses lagged, so I offered my interpretation of verse 28. I have always thought Jesus was referring to himself when he said, “He that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (John the Baptist.) I don’t know if that’s a Mormon interpretation or if I just assumed that Jesus, out of humility, was referring to himself as the least—just as he often referred to himself as a servant to his disciples. Anyway, it made sense to me that if no greater prophet was ever born than John, that only Jesus would be greater. Calvinists interpret this verse as Jesus teaching the equality of the kingdom of God—that ordinary people who accept Jesus could equal and surpass John. I found that insight interesting. As a Mormon, I’m not an advocate of biblical inerrancy, so I enjoy other interpretations of scripture. A proselytizer, I am not. 

Wort directed the discussion to verse 23, “Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me,” and asked who was offended in Jesus. No response, so Wort offered his own example. He wondered—is he really doing what Jesus desires of him in his life? And does he really want to? Two other group members responded in a similar fashion. They value their autonomy. They don’t relish being told what to do. Then Wort asked Sean if he was offended in Jesus. “Oh boy,” I thought.

Sean explained that as a Jew, he does not accept Jesus as God.  “I haven’t read the entire New Testament, but many of Jesus’ teachings are not offensive to me.” Edison, the Chinese member of the group, asked for a definition of Israel, and Sean obliged. Then Wort mentioned his parents’ Mormon faith. Edison asked if Mormons believe in hell. I said we did not believe in the literal flames as described in Revelation—a book which was almost excluded from the modern day canon—and that we believed salvation was given to all through the atonement, but different degrees of heaven exist which have to be earned.

Cookie, our daughter-in-law, frowned. Clearly, this session was not going the right direction to convert a Jew to Calvinist Christianity, but I couldn’t stop. I told Sean that Mormons believe they are also Israelites. “I know,” he said. “I took the discussions from the missionaries for eight months.” That statement moved the study session from Luke 7 to a discussion of the differing beliefs of traditional Christians, Jews, and Mormons. The evening’s outcome wasn’t exactly what the devout members had anticipated, but I enjoyed it. I wish we humans could  enjoy sharing the wisdom from our various religious traditions without the egoist (and non-spiritual) need to prove we are right.

Initiation–More Prison Memoir

Adjusting to a new job is a challenge for most people. But learning the prison routine as well as new teaching duties sometimes felt like navigating the rolling barrels through an amusement park fun house. Prison officers must manage criminals, some of them mentally ill. They not only have to keep the inmates locked away from society, they must protect prison staff from inmates and inmates from each other. Inmates must receive humane treatment and legal resources. All the rights and privileges inmates receive must be delivered by the officers: Meals, medical services, visits from family, friends, and lawyers, church services, and telephone calls. Prison officers facilitate all these needs for inmates who generally express about as much gratitude for services rendered as a typical pet goldfish. Prison officers do not relish new programs that increase their work load.

Drugs and alcohol are a perpetual problem. Drugs come in with staff and visitors. Bags and purses, even jackets are subject to search before entering prison buildings, but neither staff nor visitors are strip searched. Alcohol is concocted by inmates in their cells. They ferment fruit juice with a piece of bread, hoping the aroma of the frothing mess will not be noticed by officers. Teaching at the prison put me in contact with the kinds of people and situations my parents had warned me against while I was growing up.

“You will have to do PR with the officers in the lockdown units. They don’t like teachers,” our principal had warned Lark, the other lockdown teacher, and me. So, we spent our first morning visiting the lockdown buildings and introducing ourselves to the officers in charge. We started with the two Oquirrh buildings, the lowest level of lockdown security. They were reached by exiting the back door of Old Max and walking a path between fences to the Oquirrh compound where we buzzed a gate for the officer in the control tower to let us through. Twelve-foot fences topped with rolled razor wire separated the two  identical Oquirrh buildings  from the minimum security yard. A small area for outdoor exercise was fenced off to one side of each building. Inmates in this compound wore red jumpsuits.

The buildings were entered through a locked outer door leading to a small entry where we identified ourselves through the intercom and waited for the second door to unlock. The door clicked and we walked into a large room furnished with concrete tables and benches. This was the day room where inmates met with visitors. A floor to ceiling window separated the day room from the inmates’ recreation area where they watched TV, did body building exercises—and stared at visitors—especially women visitors.

An officer sat at a desk about fifteen feet from the door. We walked past two 5-foot high screens,  introduced ourselves, gave him a list of our students, and asked what times would be best for us to work in his building. “Just sit down a minutes, ladies,” he grunted. We sat on a bench near the door and waited several minutes while he ignored us. The door buzzed and we saw a group of about ten inmates escorted by an officer waiting for admittance. The officer at the desk told us to move across the room, and we retreated hastily from the door. We parked ourselves on a bench as far from the door as possible, not realizing that sitting in front of the window dividing this room from the inmates’ area would create a rush of attention behind us. Fortunately, the window was soundproof. We couldn’t  hear the comments, but we had a pretty good idea the excited inmates were not discussing the weather. I turned back to the door and saw officers pulling on latex gloves and escorting two of the returning inmates at a time behind the screens. Inmates waiting their turn to go behind the screen ogled us from across the room. Inmates ogled us from behind what I fervently hoped was a shatterproof window. Heads bobbed from behind the screen; socks were flung over the top, followed by red jumpsuits, then jockey shorts. I turned to Lark. “What is going on?” “Must be a strip-search,” she whispered. Being trapped in a room with apparently naked inmates between us and the door, hyper inmates behind us, and hostile officers ignoring us was more than either of Lark or I had bargained for when we signed our teaching contracts.

Eventually, the incoming inmates were re-clothed and escorted back to their cells. The officer at the desk, evidently grateful we had neither screamed nor fainted, came over and set up a schedule for us to teach in his building. “What was going on with the strip search?” Lark asked. “The inmates were out in the yard for recreation. Anytime they re-enter the building, we have to search them for drugs, cigarettes, or shanks.” “Why the gloves?” Lark persevered. “We don’t want to touch where we have to look.”

Our visits to the other lockdown buildings were less exciting. In those buildings only I was ignored by the staff. Lark was in her early thirties and unconsciously oozed sexuality. I was in my late forties and consciously oozed dowdiness. The officers kept their gaze on Lark when I spoke. If I asked a question, they answered Lark. She became de fact negotiator with most of the officers.

Two Kinds of People

There are two kinds of people—those who want authoritative, definitive answers to life’s questions and  those who question anyone’s authority to give those answers. In religious terms, the first group are considered the faithful—those who rely on the authoritative church hierarchy (Roman Catholic, Mormon), or on the inerrancy of the scriptures (evangelicals). The other group, depending on your point-of-view, consists of either devilish doubters on their way to hell or rational humanists who believe that unquestioning followers are in hell.

I realized I was in the second group when I attended 1st Unitarian Church in SLC on Mothers’ Day. The Reverend Tom Goldsmith gave a sermon on women’s issues. He quoted traditional and feminist authors’ opinions on children’s need for nurture versus women’s need for personal fulfillment. He also addressed men’s responsibilities in nurturing and expressed appreciation for the difficulty of individual families attempting the balance. He raised valid questions and provided food for thought but presented no one-size-fits-all solution.

While I enjoyed contemplating the issues Goldsmith raised, I realize most of my Mormon friends and neighbors would be uncomfortable with this kind of open-ended discussion. Knowing God’s will is available to them through the teachings of present and past prophets is an iron rod to steady them in an ever-changing world.

Now, a minority of Mormon’s actually chafe at receiving authoritative guidance for their lives. They grouse about women’s subordinate role, discrimination against gays, and the right-wing political bent of ward members. I’m not quite sure why they stick with a church which apparently irritates rather than uplifts them. Of course, my original premise may be flawed. Maybe there are really three kinds of people: authoritarian, non-authoritarian, and attend-a-church- with-which-I-disagree-and-gripe-about-it kinds.

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