An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for June, 2010

No, We Can’t Be Friends

Pandora Brewer has an essay in the summer issue of Exponent II in which she expresses the wish that she could be friends with church members who visit in hopes of reactivating her. Although no longer a believing Mormon, she’s a nice person and ward members would probably like her if they could forgo their messages and just enjoy her friendship.

Being a less-than-committed Mormon myself, I sometimes feel the pain of being considered a project rather than a person. I do, however, understand the active members’ frustration. I offer little to the ward. Some members may have two callings while I have none. My name on the rolls drags their statistics down. This hurts the ward financially since money is disbursed to the wards from the general fund based on attendance.

These are partial barriers to friendship with more devoted members, but the more important reason faithful members cannot be friends with non-believers is the very real risk of having their testimonies undermined. Testimonies are fragile. Mormons are counseled to nourish, share, and safeguard these precious possessions. Safeguarding pretty much means secluding oneself from people of differing beliefs—unless the conversation can be limited to non-religious topics or framed in a gospel-sharing manner.

The risk is real. Former members who have lost conviction in some or all church teachings definitely have the potential—intentional or not—to instill doubts in a member’s testimony. It’s tough to listen to a church member say, “Don’t worry, your son will come back to the church,” without offering the possibility that maybe God doesn’t care which church we attend, so long as it helps us live a better life. And how moral is it to hear a Mormon bash gays as sinners without offering an alternative opinion?

Unlike Judaism, Mormonism is not conducive to debating religious ideas. Doctrine comes from a higher authority and is not disputable. Generally, only two choices exist:  Follow the prophet or follow the adversary. Mormons must avoid those who may lead them astray. Friends share ideas and thoughts. So, no. Unfortunately, we can’t be friends.

Marriage–As Is

Used car lots have signs on some of the models, “As Is,” meaning you have no guarantee that the thing is going to work. Marriage is really the same way. Three of my longtime friends were divorced in their 60s—two were devout Mormons with temple marriages. People change over the course of a lifetime and no church ceremony can guarantee that the participants will change in the same or even a compatible direction.

Loss of faith by one spouse possibly affects Mormon marriages more than those of other denominations because Mormon life is so heavily family oriented. If one spouse begins staying home from church, the whole ward asks about it. Women express sympathy to a sister whose husband ceases church activity, but a man whose wife drops from the fold receives subtle criticism. He is the head of the family. His priesthood responsibility includes seeing that gospel principles are taught and lived within his home.

A good marriage invites the sharing of one’s deepest thoughts. If one spouse shares religious doubts, the other may feel her testimony is being threatened. Unlike couples of differing faiths who work these problems out before marriage, if one partner in a marriage changes faith midstream,  the couple must deal with an unexpected situation after the romantic bloom has faded and while grappling with financial pressures, career choices, child rearing, and other problems.

Hanging together for the sake of the kids and hating it is no one’s idea of bliss. Everybody knows couples who stay together in an armed truce—each sniping at the other’s self-esteem with every opportunity. But breaking up a family with divorce is also painful. Sometimes divorce leads to a happier second marriage with a more compatible person, but often it doesn’t. Living alone may be better than wishing you were alone.

Expecting a spouse not to change or to change only in ways that suit us is like chasing a mirage.  Maybe we need more teachings on accepting change, dealing with it constructively, and being less attached to outcomes we can’t control.

How Long Is Ever After?

Fairy tale princes and princesses live happily ever after, but real couples get disillusioned shortly after making their vows. I was impressed with a recent blogger  who said she didn’t notice her husband’s faults for the first ten years of their marriage. It certainly didn’t take me that long.

It didn’t take George that long, either. Within the first year he learned that I really didn’t want to work on cars with him and that my enthusiasm for fishing and hunting before our marriage was a sham. We had each put up an attractive facade during courtship and reality sucker punched us.

I don’t think we’re unusual. A friend said she knew she’d made a huge mistake when her brand-new eternal companion refused to buy her an ice cream cone on their honeymoon for fear she’d get fat. They resolved the conflict with compromise—she kept her trim figure as long as he kept his.

Our daughter, Lolly, and her husband insist that the secret of a happy marriage is to enter matrimony with low expectations. Neither of them thought the other would make them happy. And they’re right. Happiness comes from within. Even a nearest and dearest can’t confer happiness upon us—no matter how much we deserve it.

Maybe the real secret of marital bliss is not noticing a spouse’s flaws. And more power to those who can pull that off.

The God Who Loves Rules

The 15-year-old son of our daughter’s high school friend committed suicide recently. Jaycee phoned Cel Frighteous, another high school friend, to inform her of the tragedy. Cel responded as if she were instructing a church class. “I’m so glad Denise and her husband were sealed in the temple before this happened. I’m teaching my Young Women’s class that the blessings of a temple marriage will protect them from heartache.” No expression of sympathy or shock, no intimation that losing one of her own children would be a devastating blow.

What happened to the Cel who embraced her friends’ sorrows and joys as though they were her own? Somewhere in her religious practice, she’s picked up the notion that a lesson must be drawn from every experience—that proclaiming the efficacy of gospel principles trumps compassion and empathy. Cel’s current interpretation of religion makes her less caring, less human, less like God. 

I am sad for Cel because she has narrowed her vision of life to the point where she apparently believes that being a rule-abiding Mormon is an end in itself. Just as she showed no feeling for this friend’s tragedy, Cel showed no empathy for Jaycee’s painful divorce, greeting the news with, “Well, have you been going to church?”  I am sad for Cel because at some point in her life, she will find that keeping the rules won’t protect her from all suffering.

Jesus ministered to pain and suffering without judging the recipients or making them examples for his teaching. Putting the message ahead of the person creates a god who loves the rules more than the children for whom the rules are given.

Is It My Job or Is It Me?

Except for student teaching, I never taught in schools in my own neighborhood. I didn’t want neighbors or ward members expecting a parent-teacher conference every time we met. Once I taught my physician’s daughter, a sweet girl and the apple of her father’s eye, but it changed our doctor/patient relationship. So much time was spent discussing Daphne’s accomplishments that my ailments went unaddressed.

A family from my neighborhood moved into the school boundary where I taught and their daughter was assigned to my 8th grade English class. I had attended Relief Society and Sunday School with the mother, Marilyn, every Sunday for several years. Naturally, I was surprised when I greeted Marilyn by first name at Parent Conference and she showed no sign of recognition and called me Mrs. Johnson. I didn’t think I had aged unrecognizably  in the two years since their family had moved. Taffy was an indifferent student, but was not a poor enough scholar to make her mother pretend not to know me.

Another former neighbor also gave no sign of recognizing me when I taught her son, but I understood this situation a bit better. Bret and Jessica Walden  lived on our street. Jessica, the kids, and occasionally Bret attended our ward. Our daughter babysat for them. A year or so after they moved from our ward, I began teaching at the state prison and found Bret Walden incarcerated there. Bret hung out with some of the inmate clerks working for me. I hadn’t known Bret well as a neighbor, but he was the life of the party in prison. He’d been caught embezzling funds from his employer, but didn’t let this roll of the dice interfere with his zest for life. When I was leaving the prison, I occasionally met Jessica arriving to visit Bret and we chatted briefly.

A few years later, I was teaching junior high and Bick Walden, the spitting image of his father, showed up in my class. When Jessica arrived at Parent Conference, I greeted her by first name, but no glimmer of recognition flickered on her face. Our previous acquaintance apparently belonged to a past she preferred to forget. I hope she didn’t think I might mention her husband’s prison record to Bick or my other students.

Apparently, I could have taught in my own neighborhood with no problems. Other neighbors also might have chosen not to acknowledge my acquaintance.

Mary, Martha, and Me

Houseguests are great, but I’d enjoy them more if I were less Martha and more Mary. Even hosting family requires clean bedding and towels, night lights in the hall and bath, and a well-stocked refrigerator. Non-related guests require knowing food preferences and coordinating schedules as well as attempting rudimentary cleaning. I love Victorian novels where guests pay visits marked by months rather than days. Of course, Victorian mansions came equipped with a staff of servants to keep guests and hosts comfy for extended periods. And come to think of it, Mary couldn’t have been such a great listener if Martha hadn’t pulled kitchen duty.

My brother and sister-in-law have developed a foolproof technique for limiting house guests to one-night visits. Doogie and Kato moved into a smaller house last year and sold their guest bed. Guests are now bedded down on an inflatable mattress in their office. They beamed as they showed us their Costco trophy—a queen-size Aerobed.  George and I failed to detect malice in their smiles and settled down for a good night’s rest. I dreamed I was being swallowed by a giant marshmallow. I awoke with a panic and found myself engulfed in a huge amorphous puff that pitched and rolled with every breath. I struggled to sit up and found George caught in the same nightmare. He finally rolled off the mattress and I hit the floor.

“The mattress is leaking,” I said. For some reason, George’s sleep-numbed brain tried to analyze the problem. “I think the air is condensing because it’s sitting on a cold basement floor.” For whatever reason, the Aerobed was no longer supporting our bodies. We flipped the switch and the pump roared into action with cyclonic sound and fury. With our bed restored to its original firmness, I fell asleep only to awaken a little later with my body twisted into a pretzel in the collapsing guest bed. Should I turn on the pump and awaken George or just continue to suffer? I stuffed my pillow under my back in an attempt to avoid permanent curvature of the spine and tried to fall asleep. I soon realized the mattress wasn’t through deflating. I risked being devoured by this Venus Fly-Trap masquerading as a bed if I didn’t act. I pulled my arm to the surface, reached back, flipped the switch— and George thanked me. He’d been suffering in silence, afraid to awaken me. We spent the rest of the night trying to doze between bouts of pumping the air mattress. Finally, dawn arrived. I rolled to the edge and the mattress dumped me on the floor. I got up and turned to George. “Make me a vow. We will never stay overnight here again.”

Kato does not have to worry about assuming a Martha role for houseguests. No one will ever again spend more than one night at their house.

Trick Question?

“What is the most important thing in the world?” was the question Genpo Roshi asked at Sunday’s Zen Center session. The question flashed my mind back to my first calling as a Primary teacher umpteen years ago. The Primary President gave new teachers a small book of gospel basics by Mary Pratt Parrish. Unlike Mormon Doctrine and the dull manual currently used in Priesthood/Relief Society classes, this book radiated charm and personality as it taught Mormon principles. Sister Parrish posed the same question as Roshi. “What is the most important thing in the world?” Unlike a Buddhist, Sister Parrish answered the question: “The most important thing in the world is the gospel. If you lost your family, friends, home, even your life, the gospel would restore it all for eternity.”

Curiously, this answer rang true to my young self, but fails to satisfy me now that I’m much closer to the end. What I’ve learned from living is that life is precious and all too brief. And the thought of an eternal reunion is scant compensation for lives cut short.

So, what is the most important thing to me? I really don’t know. And I doubt there’s a right answer to the question. When my children were young, it was probably them. When I taught, it was probably my work—at least that’s where I spent my time and energy. With the wisdom of age, I think it’s folly to place another human being or a job, no matter how fulfilling, as the most important thing. People, work, possessions, even our health and minds can all be lost.

 I think it’s a good question to ask ourselves; however, and I suspect our answers will vary as we progress through life. George, who is not a Buddhist, gave a very Zen answer to the question: “The most important thing is Here and Now.”

Big Ed–More Prison Stories

Teachers at USP were allowed to read the case histories of our students and other inmates with whom we dealt. Case histories were pretty depressing, but in most cases less colorful than the stories the officers and inmates concocted. The most bizarre story I heard was about Big Ed, a burly inmate who had supposedly killed his girl friend and kept her body in a freezer—taking her out for a drive in his car occasionally.  In the official version, he met a woman in a bar, went home with her, had sex, killed her, and kept the body in the trunk of his car. 

Big Ed was trying to get himself declared insane and moved to the State Mental Hospital in Provo by the disgusting technique of throwing urine and feces on officers approaching his cell. He applied for a job as a tutor for my students, but I hired a more stable inmate. The prison grapevine informed me that Big Ed had it in for me. I noticed he kept asking to come out into the visitors’ area to use the phone when I was teaching in his building. One day while he was out, the officer on the floor disappeared. Big Ed walked behind me and stood whispering hoarsely, “F__k! F__k! F__k!” while I collected homework from my students.

Was he trying to scare me? Would he attack? Big Ed was half a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than I was. Officers could see the visiting area from the control station, but I could be dead before they arrived to pull Big Ed from my battered body. Three students were working with me, but the first rule for prison staff is, “Never expect an inmate to defend you.” No, I couldn’t expect help from my students if Big Ed struck. They probably feared him as much as I did, and they had to live with him. I fought back hysteria that welled up in my stomach, advanced to my chest, and gripped my shoulders and neck. School was the only bright point of my students’ lives. If I broke and ran, they would have no class until the following week.

I stayed, hoping God would protect me since I couldn’t count on anyone else. I launched into my writing lesson, hoping my voice sounded close to normal. “Vincent, will you read this newspaper clipping?” Vincent read with great expression the news account of a man who was showing his young son how to handle rattlesnakes. The snake bit him and the enraged man put the snake’s head in his mouth and bit it off, but not before receiving multiple bites on his tongue and mouth. “Jeez! That guy was either drunk or crazy, “ Marco said. I agreed and wondered about the crazy behind me. Where were the damned officers?

I proceeded mechanically through the lesson. “Who besides the man might have seen this event?”

“The kids.”

 “The snake.”

“Maybe his wife.”

 “The ambulance driver.”

My students suggested several possibilities. Fortunately, this activity held their attention without much direction from me. Should I look over my shoulder at Big Ed or might that set him off? Should I move my students to another table? Would Big Ed follow?

 I forced my attention back to my students. “Choose a person or animal that could have been there and pretend you are that person and you’re telling somebody else what happened.

“But snakes can’t talk.”

“Well, be the kind of snake that can talk. This is a freewrite, so don’t worry about your spelling or punctuation. We’ll write for five minutes.” And I hope I live that long.

I scribbled away wondering whether Big Ed’s venting was relieving his frustration or building it up to a fatal (for me) climax. After five minutes my students shared their writing. Big Ed continued to whisper, but did nothing more. Maybe the point of view stories entertained him. Maybe his blood sugar was down just before lunch and he didn’t have the energy to launch a physical assault. Maybe God does watch over fools and prison teachers. “Finish the packets at home and I’ll see you next week,” I said as I scooped books, packets, and papers into my bag. I moved to the outside door, and my students headed back to their cells. Big Ed followed them. Their door clicked open and they re-entered their section. When they were locked back in, the outside door clicked open and I escaped.

Once I returned to my office and collected my wits, I phoned the lead officer and told him I refused to teach in that building if they let Big Ed out while I was there. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Big Ed’s getting moved to Uinta 2.”  In order to convince the staff he was insane, Big Ed had cut a vein and thrown blood all over his cell that morning. He was moved to Uinta 2, the most secure building, that week and I never saw him again.

Goals or Limits

Mormonism is a step-by-step, goal-driven religion. We get baptized, go to church, serve a mission (if male), marry in the temple, raise a family, serve in callings, keep the commandments, and achieve exaltation. Sounds pure and simple, but this focus on goals has drawbacks for some members—disappointment and loss of broader opportunities.

First of all—not all goals are under our control. Good Mormons can keep the commandments, follow the prophet, and still end up unmarried at age 35. Good Mormons have also attained a temple marriage only to find themselves incompatible with or even deserted by their eternal companion. Magnifying callings doesn’t guarantee being called to a prestigious position. Keeping the Word of Wisdom doesn’t prevent all disease, and paying tithing doesn’t always protect against job loss.

Secondly—a narrow focus on LDS goals limits opportunities for broader experiences. Most, but not all, returned missionaries describe their mission experiences as personally rewarding. Yet, choosing to serve a mission means choosing not to spend time and resources on other educational, spiritual, or service possibilities. Focusing only on temple marriage can cause Mormons to overlook opportunities to meet and date outstanding non-Mormons with whom they might find happiness. Limiting scripture study to LDS scriptures restricts time for accessing the wisdom of other faiths and philosophers. Donating time and energy to LDS callings limits time for community service.

None of these Mormon goals is bad. But is it beneficial to focus on a script so narrow that we fail to recognize all of the good choices God has given us? Choosing to do one thing always means choosing not to do others, and we cannot predict with 100% accuracy the consequences of any of our decisions. Since human beings come with widely differing abilities, we can’t all follow the same pattern and expect identical results.

Swearing Off Fast and Testimony Meeting

Last Sunday, members of our ward were handed a list of instructions for bearing testimonies and the meeting I used to enjoy nose-dived. Now, I agree with some of the instructions—testimonies should not be prepared lectures. I don’t relish hearing Brother Feermonger admonish us all to get our two-year supply of food, fuel, and ammunition to prepare for the havoc the Obama administration is bringing upon our country. But I rather like travelogues. I know they’re self-promoting—“I just can’t pass up this opportunity to share our family’s trip to Israel”—but experiences beyond our ward boundaries add  interest. I also like realistic accounts of dealing with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. When Brother Forchanat describes the strength he received from the Lord and the support of family and ward members as he struggled for his life and limbs following a near fatal electrocution at work, I am moved to tears.

Restricting speakers to testifying that they “know” God lives, Jesus is their Savior, Joseph Smith was a true prophet, the Book of Mormon is true, and President Monson is our living prophet gets pretty tedious after 45 minutes. And how does one evaluate which personal experiences are testimony building? Some of the choices shared last Sunday struck me as more odd than uplifting.

The counselor in the bishopric started us off with his reflections on family members who have “fallen away” from the church. He doesn’t understand how they could  have lost their purpose in life and no longer understand their individual worth. I wanted to ask him why he believed only active Mormons have a purpose in life and understand their individual worth, but testimony meeting does not include a Q & A session.

A good sister shared her experience of answered prayer last week. It seems her kids found a stray dog in their yard. They brought it in the house, fed it, and wondered how to find the owner. The mother’s solution was to pray for the owner to come to their house looking for the animal. After prayer, they stayed up until 10:30, waiting for the owner. Finally, the dog went to the door and they opened it just as the owner was walking past their house. Heavenly Father had truly answered their prayer. The dog had to pee just as the owner came by. Of course, they could have fed the dog, left it on the front porch, and not had to bother Heavenly Father, but that would have invoked common sense rather than faith and not been worth sharing at church.

Obviously, I haven’t the spirituality necessary to see me through F & T meetings—especially with the new guidelines. I can attend with a look of martyrdom on my face or stay home and make everyone happier.

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