An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for October, 2010

Trick or Treat

Halloween offers a plethora of guilty pleasures for adults. The opportunity to dress up in a sexy costume for those  young enough to actually look sexy. The opportunity to sneak mini Herseys from their children’s trick or treat bags. for those too out-of-shape for fishnet stockings or tattooed torsos, Or, for empty-nesters, the opportunity to eat a whole Costco-sized bag of Snickers bought in advance.

I fall in the last category. And I usually avoid temptation by buying Smarties or Dum-Dums which I know I won’t eat. But a recent blog has dumped guilt onto even this strategy. The blogger makes the point that Halloween is the one time of the year that little children come to our house to ask for something. The one time of the year! And here I’ve been giving these little children the sugared equivalent of stones or serpents.

Thanks to Clobberblog,  this year I’m going to buy a bag of decent bars—and I really don’t mind. It’s just that it’s so darned tough to know how many to buy. We don’t get a lot of trick or treaters in our neighborhood—and this year with some families celebrating on Saturday and some on Sunday, I have to be prepared for two nights of doorbell ringing. But I don’t want little children to leave my doorstep empty-handed—or with nothing better than a roll of Smarties. I will prepare. I just don’t know what to do about the leftovers. Being of a frugal nature, I can’t throw perfectly delicious candy bars into the garbage can—even though, nutritionally, they belong there. I no longer have a job, so I can’t get rid of them at work. Maybe I’ll just have to dump the extras into the bag of the last trick or treater before I douse the porch light. But I’ll keep a few Milky Ways out—in case of stragglers, of course.

A Box Full of Darkness


Mary Oliver wrote a wonderful poem, “The Uses of Sorrow,” in which she says: Someone I loved once gave me/ A box full of darkness./ It took me years to understand/ That this, too, was a gift.            

On the bus the other day—and you don’t have to eavesdrop to overhear conversations on a bus—I heard a young man talk about being adopted as an infant. The only thing he knows about his birth parents is that they were unmarried teens. “Yeah, they did something they shouldn’t have,” he said. “But if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here. They gave me life and gave me up to a good family. I’m glad they did.”

Teen pregnancy probably meets most people’s definition of a box full of darkness, yet it gave life, a good life, to this boy. Sometimes our own actions bring sorrow to our lives. Sometimes other people’s actions do, and sometimes the universe spins sorrow our direction for no fathomable reason. This overheard conversation made be aware than one person’s box of darkness may be another person’s gift. Hopefully, one or both of the boy’s birth parents found some positives from their experience—perhaps a gaining of maturity, judgment, compassion or some other value they could take forward into their lives.

Bad things happen to good people and smart people do foolish things. How wise if we can learn to love the person, even if it is our self, who gives us a box full of darkness.

Failure Not Allowed

Many, possibly most, American Mormons espouse market-value economics. Freedom of choice. If an idea or business isn’t up to snuff, the market will sift it out. Some even extend that view to social programs. A person who doesn’t earn enough money to feed, clothe, and shelter self and family should do without.

Paradoxically, in church callings Mormons not only lack freedom of choice—no one volunteers for a calling and no one is supposed to resign—but no one is allowed to fail in a calling. In Protestant religions, anyone who wants can start a church or apply for a vacant position in an established church. A self-appointed minister who fails to attract a crowd will soon be looking for other employment. Same for a hired minister who doesn’t satisfy.

In Mormon Church structure, members are assigned to a specific ward based on where they live. Mormons stuck with a bishop they dislike must suffer, preferably in silence, until his term expires—usually five years—or pack up and move. Same thing with church classes. When more than one Sunday School class is offered, members are assigned to attend a specific class in order not to create an imbalance and hurt the feelings of the teacher who attracts smaller numbers.

Certainly the Mormon system of church organization has benefits—the church generally functions smoothly with most quietly accepting direction from above. And after all, no one wants to be perceived as a failure. Still, I’ve had callings where I wouldn’t have minded in the least if one or more of the class members had felt free to attend another class

Low Expectations: Key to Happiness

When asked the secret of their working marriage, our daughter Lolly and her husband, Doc, reply, “Low expectations.” Most couples marry with the expectation that they have chosen the one and only who will make them happy. Lolly and Doc went into marriage knowing that while it is possible for other people to cause misery, happiness is basically a personal responsibility.

Like marriage, nearly everyone enters parenthood with the expectation, or at least the hope, of doing better than their parents. Our youngest son, Techie, and his wife, Techie II, are currently surrounding their first-born with a natural environment of cloth diapers, breast milk, no pacifiers. Since I played Bach and read Yeats to Wort as soon as we got him home from the hospital, I sneer not. I know that by the time the Techies get their second child, all they’ll really hope for is a large bladder and a dry nose. And for subsequent kids, they’ll be satisfied if all the essential body parts are included.

Low expectations are especially helpful near the end of life. I suspect hope for a perfect world beyond this imperfect one accounts for much of the anxiety religious believers experience as they approach death. Religious people generally have faith that loved ones pass on to a better place. But the friends and relatives I’ve seen approaching their own deaths entertain doubts—about the existence of another world and about their own qualifications for entry.

Here’s where I think the low expectations of an agnostic relieve anxiety. Not believing in heaven relieves the worry that it may not exist or that the entry fee may be too steep. As the old saying goes, “Expect the worst and you’ll never be disappointed.”


Our granddaughter, Kit, will be baptized in January and our daughter, Lolly, is shopping for a baptismal dress. “Don’t they use white jumpsuits anymore?” I asked. Lolly shook her head. “Girls wear an elaborate, white confirmation-type dress to the baptismal service, then change into a jumpsuit for the actual baptism. The baptismal dress is saved as an heirloom and is never worn again.”

Lolly hates shopping and especially hates making a major investment for a dress to be worn once. Since she inherited my sewing skills, she has little choice. I hope this new baptism custom does not extend to every ward. It could be a budget wrecker.

I was baptized before jumpsuits were standard. My mother saved the white organdy dress I had worn for a first grade program for the occasion. Modesty must not have been an issue back then. All the Mormon baptisms in Provo were performed in one building. Dad was working, so Mother left my younger brother with a neighbor and took me. No family or ward members attended. I recall trying to make myself listen to the man speaking about the importance of our commitment, but was too excited to concentrate. Fear that my toe would bob out of the water and I’d have to be re-dipped consumed me. Regardless of the lack of ceremony, my baptism took. I was an active Mormon for most of my life.

Our children were baptized in white jump suits and we tried to make the occasion memorable. Grandparents were able to attend for some of our kids. Lolly’s October birthday allowed an out-of-doors baptism in a pond in our rural community. The pond water must have been spiritual since Lolly is currently the only practicing Mormon in our family.

When our oldest grandchild, Hebe, was baptized two years ago, we attended along with aunts, uncles and cousins. Lolly hosted a family dinner and activities afterward. Fortunately, their ward has not yet gone the route of white confirmation-style suits for boys.

Our oldest son, Wort, had a second baptism when he joined Mars Hill Church a few years ago. Protestants regard baptism as a symbol demonstrating a person’s commitment to Christ and a Christian lifestyle rather than as a saving ordinance. Nevertheless, mainstream Christian churches do not recognize LDS baptisms because of differences in key doctrine. Possibly recalling his sister’s dip in the pond, Wort chose to be baptized in Puget Sound. He did not invite us to attend.

When I attended Mars Hill Church two weeks ago, the meeting ended with a baptism. Curtains at the front of the sanctuary parted revealing a baptismal font.  A young woman was immersed by two men. Her name was not read, but the congregation applauded her commitment.

Different faiths have different methods of making commitments. Personally, I can’t believe in a God who cares more about the form of commitment than about the way a person lives up to it.

Time to Retire?

Mormon leaders frequently proclaim a disturbing lack of religious belief in the modern world, although polls show that Americans are more religious than people in any other developed country in the world. A recent poll by the Pew Forum shows that only 4% of Americans identify themselves as agnostic or atheist. What Mormon leaders may be referring to is stagnant, even negative, Mormon Church growth

Yet other Christian churches in the US are experiencing rapid growth. So, if other Christian churches are growing while the Mormon Church is not, Quentin L. Cook’s October General Conference statement: “The assault on moral principles and religious freedom has never been stronger…. there are also people who are determined to both destroy faith and reject any religious influence in society….” begs the question. Blaming the adversary for an assault on religion will not likely change the growth dynamics of the Mormon Church. What might be helpful is looking at what rapidly growing churches are doing that is different.

Two weeks ago, I attended Mars Hill, a reformed Christian church in Seattle, a traditionally non-churchy part of the country. Mars Hill has experienced dynamic growth in the past decade—expanding to several branch campuses serviced by pastors and connected by satellite TV for sermons by the founder, Pastor Mark Driscoll. Pastor Mark is just40— associate pastors are even younger. The branch I visited had just opened near the University of Washington two weeks ago and the place was filled—over 700 people for the morning service. Most of the congregation were university students—with a fair mixture of young families and older people. No attempt is made to divide members by address or marital status.

Pastor Mark preached on Luke 11:5-13. He drew the example of God being our Dad who loves us and answers our requests though not always the way we want. A highly entertaining speaker, Pastor Mark related the parable of the man needing bread for unexpected guests knocking at the door of his neighbor’s one-room house in Galilee. The awakened neighbor, quite naturally refuses to get up in the dark and stumble over sleeping kids to meet his neighbor’s need, but finally gives in to quiet his neighbor. Then Pastor Mark described himself being sought by his 3-year-old who wanted him to watch Tinkerbelle with her when he had planned to spend Saturday afternoon watching college football. He concluded that if an imperfect human loves his child enough to watch Tinkerbelle with her instead of college football, how much more God, who is perfect, loves us enough to answer our prayers. A great lesson in being a good dad as well as in trusting God.

Pastor Mark and others like him are reaching people who would not care to access a Mormon meeting to hear elderly general authorities decry the wickedness of the world, opine that gay marriage will undermine family values, or insist that personal revelation is subordinate to authorized priesthood revelation.

I’m not trying to belittle Mormon leaders nor those who enjoy their messages. However, I do find it unproductive to blame the wickedness of the world for the flat growth of the Mormon Church when other churches with younger leaders draw crowds to hear a conservative Christian message with a very strict moral code.

Nostalgia Nonsense

“The World” is a sinful, fearful place according to way too many messages delivered from Mormon pulpits and lesson manuals. Now, nobody can reasonably argue that the modern world lacks sufficient violence and suffering. Yet this message is often delivered by an exhortation to return to a halcyon past—the good old days when our country was righteous, peaceful and prosperous.

Of course, that storied era never actually existed. Neither we nor our ancestors were ever all that good. And our country has cycled through wars and economic depressions throughout its history. I remember the 1950s and it was not much like the idealized version immortalized on Leave It to Beaver. Some mothers did work outside the home—with good and bad effects. I hated tending my toddler brother while my mom checked groceries in our family business. But I loved riding to school with my friend’s mom on her way to work. Stay-at-home moms let their kids roam unsupervised and the kids sometimes got into trouble. My 8-year-old cousin humiliated the family by getting caught shoplifting candy from a competitor’s store.

We were scared to death of communists and a possible nuclear attack by the Soviets in those days, but the economy and personal prosperity boomed—probably due to more equitable tax policies and arms-race spending rather than to superior virtue. True, illegal drug use was a lesser problem back then, but alcohol use and drunk driving—even by teens in solid Mormon communities—existed. The illegitimate birth rate was lower, but not all the hasty marriages of reluctant boys to girls with bulging bellies lasted or produced healthy families. And not everyone prospered. My widowed grandmother with a crippled, dependent daughter lived in abject poverty until Social Security benefits were extended to all aged and handicapped persons.

Skipping back a generation, the prohibition era was hardly a time of social purity as otherwise respectable citizens flouted the law to buy illegal beverages—and gave rise to organized crime supplying the need—much the way current drug laws do. Despite bootlegging, the twenties were generally peaceful and prosperous.

In the previous century our country endured persecution of Chinese and Japanese immigrants, religious discrimination against Catholics, Jews, and Mormons, slavery and a Civil War. Not exactly a recipe of peace and virtue.

A better solution than donning colonial attire to recapture the imagined spirit of an earlier age is to enjoy the present. Despite our current problems, I wouldn’t choose to live in any period of the past—although a quick visit might be fun.


In Buddhist philosophy, the Self is an illusion. As Alan Watts puts it, “the thing you call ‘I’—is really a stream of experiences, of sensations, thoughts and feelings in constant motion. But because these experiences include memories, we have the impression that ‘I’ is something solid and still, like a tablet upon which life is writing a record.”

The notion of a fluid Self makes sense. I noticed a long time ago that I become a different person in different circumstances. And it’s often frustrated me to feel I’ve attained significant personal growth only to return home and be treated as the person I was several years ago.

A river may be a useful analogy for the Self. The old saying goes, “You can never step into the same river twice.” True of course—the water changes continuously. Yet, the general outline of the river remains the same—usually. In times of flood, a normally placid river froths with rage, exceeds its banks, destroys. During drought, water dwindles—the river becomes a fragment of its former self.

Like a river, the Self maintains a certain sameness although experiences constantly change. The self sometimes energizes into a different form and sometimes dries into dusty memories.


Back on Wednesday. This post originally appeared Oct. 19,2009.

I still think of Dad frequently although he died three years ago at age 90. The hospice group which cared for him at the end offered grief counseling. I turned them down. I had been grieving for Dad for two years. When his ordeal ended, peace and relief filled my being.

Dad deserved to pass peacefully in his sleep before the ravages of age destroyed his independence. Dad was the kind of person who would stop and hand a $100 bill to a distraught woman weeping as firemen struggled to extinguish the blaze destroying her home.

He cared for my young, dying mother until cancer consumed her life, then cared for my younger brothers and me while running the family business.  He remarried to give us a mother and submitted to a miserable relationship for years—unwilling to hurt my half sister by leaving.

If the point of suffering is to teach and refine the human spirit, Dad earned a Ph.D. in life experience. The only thing he ever asked for himself was not to become a burden to his children. Yet God did not see fit to take my dad before a series of strokes and blocked carotid arteries eroded his reasoning capacity to match his weakened body.

For two years before his death, I grieved for the father I’d lost: The father who followed the news and scoffed at the misbehavior of elected officials—George’s Bush’s deficit spending—Bill Clinton’s unzipped trousers. The father who could haul limbs from a tree without straining his back and hiding his pain until he couldn’t walk to the bathroom. The father who didn’t nap all day and wake at midnight wondering why it was still dark.

As I cared for Dad, I grieved for myself. That I could not make him better. That I found his care a burden. That I too am mortal. That I must either die while life is still a joy or decline into helplessness.

Did I receive benefits from caring for Dad? Of course. I am grateful for his courage and for his gentle, loving disposition which lasted nearly to the end. I’m grateful I learned how difficult taking an elderly parent into your home is. I will never do that to any of my children. But I wish Dad hadn’t paid the price for my learning. He didn’t owe me anything. He deserved a merciful death.

Closet Buddhist

I’m wearing out. Be back next week. This post originally appeared Oct. 21, 2009.

My sister-in-law, a Zen-Buddhist, is the most spiritual person I know. Loving, kind, and generous, Passiko  radiates peace and love. She moved forward after the death of her only son, establishing a scholarship at his university to benefit other students. Her personal goodness stirred my interest in her philosophy at a time when my LDS faith was not meeting my spiritual needs.

The repetition of the same lessons, the same answers to every question started bothering me about 15 years ago. During the three-hour block each Sunday, I nearly wore my left wrist out checking my watch. General Conference lulled me to sleep within the first twenty minutes. Trying to be the best wife, mother, daughter, and teacher possible, to magnify my Church callings and to be a good friend and neighbor wound me up like a tether ball on a post. Frustrated instead of fulfilled, I felt as out of place at church as a closet gay at a Utah Republican family values meeting.

I tried yoga and while the stretches relaxed my body, the Oriental philosophy teased my Occidental mind. “The present moment is really the only one we have.” Wasn’t earth life only a tiny fraction of eternity? “You are not your thoughts.” Well, what else was I? “Clear your mind.” Wasn’t my mind supposed to be actively engaged all the time?

 Passiko recommended Sharon Salzburg’s Loving-Kindness when I quizzed her about Buddhism. A truly pivotal book. I read slowly, trying out the suggested exercises. I found the divine spark within myself. It didn’t withdraw when I wasn’t worthy. Stopping and looking within through meditation helped me clear away delusions like fear and attachment that sometimes hide my true nature.

Todd, a three-time cancer survivor, led a meditation group I joined. Buddhism helped him learn to live in the present and to accept what he can’t change. “It just is,” was a favorite saying. Todd said he left Mormonism because, “I could never be good enough.”

Guilt often drives Mormons who have a list of hundreds of commandments and admonitions to keep. Buddhism is non-judgmental. Behavior is defined as skilled and unskilled actions rather than good and bad. Unskilled actions bring natural consequences rather than divine disapproval. In Buddhism, the practice is what is important, not the expectation of achieving enlightenment or other reward. I find this more selfless than doing good to gain a higher spot in the celestial kingdom.

A fundamental precept of Buddhism is transience—everything changes. Mormonism emphasizes permanence—our intelligence has always existed, our reunited spirits and physical bodies will last for eternity, family relationships will last forever. While I like the idea of permanence, experience shows me that all things change, even family relationships. Children grow up and move on, parents age, roles reverse.

The Buddha taught his followers to avoid blind faith. He recommended testing each teaching by applying it to one’s own life. If it brings peace and happiness, it is a true principle for you. If it fails to do that, it is not true for you at this time no matter who said it or where it is written.

I maintain my LDS affiliation, accepting the best of both religions. More traditional Mormons can incorporate Buddhist principles they like within the framework of LDS faith. Many Buddhist teachings actually complement LDS doctrine.  As Joseph Smith said, “We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true ‘Mormons.’”

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