An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for October, 2010

Self

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.

Grieving

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.’”

Faith-Promoting Stories

Still on Grandmother/Mother-in-law duty. This post originally appeared Oct. 23, 2009.

Missionaries insert faith-promoting stories into discussions with investigators. General authorities publicly denounce the more fantastic tales, but the Ensign continues to publish them. They evoke tears of sentiment or jeers of scorn from hearers. For better or worse, faith-promoting stories  are likely to remain a vital part of Mormon culture.

The earliest FPS I recall was from a Beehive teacher trying to impress us with the sacredness of LDS garments. She told us they were a protection to the wearer and related the tale of missionaries returning from Europe on the Titanic. When their bodies were recovered, it was found that the fish had eaten everything but the parts of the body covered by the garment. I swallowed the story hook, line and sinker—never questioning how the missionaries’ bodies were recovered from the mid-Atlantic or the benefit of having their torso left in one piece after head, arms and lower legs became fish food.

When John F. Kennedy ran for president, I knew he would lose because the story making the rounds in Utah County was that the Doctrine and Covenants said a Catholic would never become US president. Yes, I know. Reading the scriptures myself would have prevented this gullibility.

If I were a better person, I would simply enjoy the story rather than register disbelief when a sincere believer relates an unlikely FPS. A sister-in-law related a marvelous story about a Japanese bomber pilot whose mission was to bomb the LDS temple on Pearl Harbor Day. He was given the exact location of the temple, but when he flew over the spot, nothing was there. He rechecked his directions and made another pass over the spot. Still nothing. He made another pass over the indicated spot and found nothing, so he flew over the ocean and dropped his bombs into the water. Years later, when he related his story to a Mormon missionary, he was asked if that experience didn’t make him want to join the Church. “No,” he declared. He wanted nothing to do with a religion that had a God that strong.

Since I’m not a better person, I asked Elva why the Japanese would have chosen to bomb the temple. She drew herself up haughtily and informed me that her son-in-law had heard the story on his mission to Japan and it was true.

The really fanciful stories are entertaining and probably do little harm. More harmful are those that warn of impending doom or promise miraculous answers to prayer or. Prior to the year 2000, how many LDS families left good jobs in the cities for a safe, self-sustaining life in Manti, Utah—or Jackson County, MO for the more adventurous?

And what about stories of immediate answers to prayer over relatively trivial matters such as finding lost car keys right after praying? A more natural explanation, such as prayer opening a person’s mind to remembering where the keys  were left, allows for divine help without causing listeners to wonder why God performs miracles for some people, i.e. devout LDS, while ignoring others with greater needs—refugees in war torn lands, victims of natural disasters, etc. etc.

Miracles are rare and blessings are not always a reward for righteousness.  Matthew tells us, “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.” Maybe we should consider the unintended effect an FPS may have on a listener before relating it.

Spiritual Experiences

Sleepless in Seattle while caring for newborns and moms. This post originally appeared Oct. 28, 2009.

I grew up believing the LDS Church was the only true church. Everybody I knew told me so, but I had no spiritual experiences on which to base my faith until I married and moved from Utah. We moved into a small ward in Wyoming that needed and cherished every warm body, no matter how eccentric or unorthodox. Third Ward needed Primary teachers and a Scoutmaster. Neither our civil marriage nor George’s smoking counted against us.  Church provided instant friends who shared their testimonies. I no longer attended church to avoid guilt. I attended to participate in the social and spiritual experiences available there.

We moved on to Washington State and I became a stay-at-home mom and attended Relief Society for the first time, back in the days of weekday morning meetings. Again, the sisters in the ward substituted for my deceased mother and the sisters I never had. Attending meetings and fulfilling callings enveloped me in warm, loving spirituality.

Eventually George overcame cigarette addiction and we were sealed as an eternal family—the most spiritual experience of my life to that point. I loved the peace of temple worship, but was disappointed that it made so little difference in my everyday life.

Eventually, the silent, subservient portrayal of women in the temple nagged at me. For a while I substituted initiatory sessions for the endowment, so I could partake of the temple spirit without the distracting message. At the same time the Curriculum Committee began recycling Sunday School and Relief Society lessons. Regardless of which prophet or which scripture was studied, the lessons varied not. I could predict to the moment when Sister Virtue would share her experience of returning to the supermarket to hand over a nickel of extra change the checker had mistakenly handed her. The three-hour block became a burden rather than a blessing. Each Sunday I left church feeling less spiritual than when I’d arrived. Once the kids grew up and left home, I couldn’t find a reason to attend meetings.

Personal scripture study had a perverse effect. The more I read the Book of Mormon, the less convincing and spiritual I found it. Only personal prayer satisfied spiritual longing. Fortunately, I found yoga, meditation and Buddhism at this time.  They have been my “growth religion.”  From them I have found the peace that comes from focusing on the present and accepting life as it is.

I know devout Mormons gain spiritually from LDS meetings, and I have no wish to undermine their testimonies. I value the spiritual growth the Church gave me earlier in my life. I maintain my membership because I value my family, friends, and neighbors who are active members. I value the social contacts and opportunities to help needy neighbors which my membership gives me.

My spiritual growth comes from new insights and ideas rather than from repetition of previously learned doctrine. On Fast Sunday I usually attend Testimony Meeting to hear unrehearsed spiritual experiences shared by members. Other Sundays I visit the Zen Center to meditate, attend the Unitarian Church for uplifting thoughts and music, and commune with the Spirit at home or on a walk alone. My spiritual growth is my personal responsibility. I cannot delegate it to an organization.

Glenn Beck and Cleon Skousen: The Dynamic Duo

Taking care of those babies and mamas. This post originally appeared Sept. 25, 2009.     

Cleon Skousen was a controversial figure in the 1950s and ‘60s. A little out of step with the times, he missed the McCarthy Era when Americans watched “I Led Three Lives” on Friday nights and envisioned Communist spies masquerading as patriotic Americans while trying to overthrow our government. By the time Skousen came out with his first book, The Naked Communist, everybody but the John Birch Society had tired of looking for clandestine Communists trying to convince suburban Americans we’d be better off with a Moscow standard of living. Skousen continued writing books and founded the Freeman Institute, but only a fringe group of Mormons paid attention to his politics. His reputation resurged in LDS circles during the ‘70s when he authored imaginative books on the Old Testament. Now, conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck has resurrected Skousen’s book, The 5,000 Year Leap, after thirty years of obscurity.

My first notice of Skousen was in 1960. He came to my college campus in Cedar City, Utah promoting his first book, The Naked Communist. He identified himself as a former FBI agent and electrified our student body with tales of top government officials who were either Communists or Communist dupes. He said his book kept disappearing from the shelves of public libraries. Obviously, a Communist conspiracy existed to prevent the American public from learning about the Communists in our midst. Our only chance to read The Naked Communist was to purchase  one of the autographed copies Skousen had thoughtfully brought along.

By the 1970s Skousen turned his talents to religion and produced The First Two Thousand Years, basically a commentary on Genesis. The Gospel Doctrine teacher in my ward used it almost exclusively as a lesson manual for our class. Skousen claimed the Old Testament convincingly demonstrated that the pure Mormon gospel was practiced by the ancient Jews.  I read his  biblical references but usually couldn’t see the connection to his claims. I mentioned my difficulty to our Stake President’s wife. Sister Kay said she’d heard two General Authorities discussing Skousen’s books. One said, “When I read anything by Cleon Skousen, I put ‘CS’ by it.” The other said, “When I read anything by Cleon Skousen, I put ‘BS’ by it.”

Pretty odd to see Skousen’s book on the bestseller list after all these years. Using Skousen’s scholarship, Glenn Beck has progressed from using the “socialism” buzzword. Now America is under siege by full-blown Communists—spearheaded by the Rockefeller family who commissioned murals for the Rockefeller Center seventy or eighty years ago designed to turn any Americans viewing them into Marxist robots.

Are many of Beck’s fans aware of his and Skousen’s religion? I don’t watch Glenn Beck enough to know if he mentions his religious affiliation—close-ups of grown men weeping make me want to slap someone.  But more importantly, will Beck’s creative “proofs” of a secret plot by President Obama to turn America into a communist state help Mitt Romney’s eternal quest for the Republican nomination for president?

Cleon Skousen never had enough of a national following to be a serious embarrassment to the LDS Church. Not so with Glenn Beck. I feel like I need to apologize for being related to the village idiot. Kind of like—“I know our last name’s the same, but we’re not all like that.”

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