An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for December, 2010

Agency

Agency is a key component of Mormon theology. Dozens of scriptures from Joshua’s “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve. . .” to 2 Nephi’s “”ye are free to act for yourselves . . .” affirm humankind’s freedom to choose.

I never quite bought into my YW teacher’s motto, “You can be anything you want to be.” Even as a 13-year-old, I knew I was not endowed with the gifts to be either a ballerina or an opera star—although I did see a possibility for a career as a film star.

While I never really challenged my assigned station in life, my brother Doogie went through a prolonged rebellion against his upbringing by our boring, workaholic father. Still, Doogie ended up spending most of his life working a job he hated to provide for his kids—just as our father had. Did Doogie have a choice to put his own needs ahead of his kids’? I don’t think so. Whether by nature, nurture or both, Doogie was pretty well programmed to be a caring parent. He could not have done less for his kids and lived with himself.

George’s stepson and his wife came to visit us several years ago. George was the only father-figure Skipper remembered from his mother’s marriages. Skipper, the oldest of three children by three different fathers, functioned as the adult in the family for most of his childhood. From what we saw of his marriage, he’d picked up his mother’s ways of controlling a relationship. He’d also picked up her binge-spending habit. Finally, his wife divorced him. How much agency did Skipper really have? He certainly didn’t choose a childhood that left him emotionally scarred.

Choice is limited by many things not under our control—intelligence, talent, physical and mental health, control by others, poverty. Certainly a person with an IQ of 120 has a far greater range of choices than someone functioning at 80. My friend with chronic lung disease is limited in where she can go and what kind of work she can do. People under totalitarian governments have limited access to information. In many cultures, people cannot choose whom to marry. People in third world countries lack the opportunity to choose education or employment.

Viktor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote that the concentration camp guards could control everything in his life except his mind. But—Frankl’s mind was formed decades before he entered the concentration camp. Had that kind of brutality been forced upon him as a child, how much control over his own mind would he have achieved?

And how much choice does a kid have if he’s taught to fear Satan and told he’d be under an evil influence if he steps from the straight and narrow?

Despite the abundance of scriptures on agency, more often I find myself on the determinist rather than the free will page. In the end, I suppose it behooves us all to avoid judging since we cannot possibly know another person’s circumstances nor guess at how much agency that person actually enjoys.

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Travel Highlights and Hazards–Christmas 2010

Most erotic moment:  George’s TSA screening at the Salt Lake Airport. For reasons unknown, he was selected for the full body scan while I walked through the regular metal detector. The body scan was followed by the thorough pat down which has coined such phrases as “TSA made me gay” and “TSA stands for Tourists  Sexually Assaulted.” I laughed at George until the TSA officer started groping places where polite people don’t scratch in public. George was justifiably angry and upset—especially when the TSA officer asked about the knee brace he was wearing. Since that’s what showed up on the body scan, why not check the knee rather than the genitals? Knowing that other senior citizens were being subjected to intimate inspection failed to make us feel safer on our flight. But at least TSA is providing work for thousands of Americans who possibly haven’t the skills to repair bridges, highways, and other crumbling infrastructure which our tax dollars could fund instead.

Most snuggly moment: Three-month-old Lennox looking at pictures while I read One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish to her.

Most poignant moment: Two-year-old Pelicans showing how her mom taught her to say Granny. Granny came out Genie, but who cares?

Most spiritual moment: Christmas Eve service at Mars Hill Church. Singing “Silent Night” by candlelight on Christmas Eve is a pleasure not limited to true believers.

Most unusual anecdote: My brother Dooby’s account of a recent funeral he attended. One of his poker buddies who suffered from cirrhosis of the liver—brought on by years of drug and alcohol abuse—was found unconscious and taken to the hospital where he died a few days later. The man had no family except for a couple of nephews who lived out of state, so a woman in the poker group suggested the group clean up his house and hold a memorial service for him. The poker players found the house full of stashes of marijuana and learned the guy was the local dealer. They announced the service and put the pot out for takers. According to Dooby, every pothead in the county showed up to pay their respects. “And they were really nice people.”

Most uplifting moment: Being dropped off at the ferry terminal on Bainbridge Island as the last call for the ferry was announced, running up a half block of steep ramps clutching bags and pulling loaded suitcases—and making it with no heart attacks!

Most 3rd World moment: Being mobbed by taxi and limo drivers at the ferry terminal exit in Seattle. Six or 8 men aggressively vied for our patronage trying to wrest my suitcase from my hands. We fought them off and chose an older gentleman who stood quietly. One of the others yelled, “Why you choose him?” “Because he didn’t yell and grab.” Our driver, a Russian, said the aggressive drivers were mostly Somalis which explains a lot. That’s the way guides and drivers get tourist business in developing countries—but I wasn’t prepared to see that in Seattle. Maybe the economy is worse than I thought.

Faith to Move Mountains

Originally posted 12/31/09

Driving by the former Point of the Mountain dividing Salt Lake and Utah Counties, I realize that power shovels and dump trucks are as capable of moving mountains as faith. More so, I guess. I’m not aware of any mountains that have been relocated through faith—unless you count Hanuman flying the mountain of herbs from the Himalayas to provide healing to Ram’s army in the Ramayana legend.

 When I was growing up, church lessons routinely featured stories of Apostle Matthew Cowley’s miraculous healing of Polynesian members in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. Even without the visuals used in contemporary church lessons, those stories flamed to life in my mind. I saw the dying man lying on a woven mat on the sandy floor of his grass shack. His wife and children weeping. No medical help available. A runner bursts through the doorway. An apostle from the Church of Jesus Christ has just arrived on the supply boat. Minutes later, Elder Cowley enters the hut and looks at the dying man. The Apostle hesitates to administer to such a hopeless case, but the man whispers, “If you bless me, I will live.” A sacred hush envelops the hut as Elder Cowley lays his hands on the man’s head and administers a priesthood blessing of healing. Witnesses barely open their eyes before the man sits up and asks for something to eat. His faith has made him whole.

My heart thumped at the conclusion of each story. If I had the undoubting faith of these Polynesians, my prayers would be answered like theirs. Yet, other church lessons emphasized God answering our prayers according to His greater knowledge. For our own good, sometimes the answer is no. Which was it—faith works miracles or God might say no?

BYU tilted my faith system to the miracle side. When our first child was born, I believed that, in answer to sincere fasting and prayer, God would provide total guidance for raising this precious child. A three-week bout of colic demonstrated that not even fervent prayers guaranteed trouble-free child-rearing. Faith and parenting were both more complex than I’d anticipated.

Faith can provide comfort, but faith can also postpone action. Ray, a good man in our ward, was diagnosed with liver cancer. He received medical treatment, priesthood blessings, and a ward fast. Ray ran a construction business and his wife begged him to put his business affairs in legal order, just in case. Ray refused. In his mind, planning for the possibility of his death demonstrated lack of faith in the Lord’s power to heal. For Ray, death preceded the miracle. Relying on prayers and blessings left his business in a costly mess.

The D&C tells us “To some it is given to know . . . To others, it is given to believe . . . .” (46:12-13) No one “knows” about spiritual things in the empirical sense, but many believe—some strongly. Others can only hope or, less optimistically, wish. Maybe faith encompasses more than belief in God. Maybe faith includes belief in our own capacity to act. And maybe the faith to move mountains refers to the human capacity to design, build, and operate earthmovers.

Sanctity of Marriage

First posted 12/28/09

I fell into the trap of thinking I could coerce George into church activity when we were first married. Like many new wives, I saw my spouse as a work-in-progress. It didn’t hit me how futile and even unrighteous my attempts were until a well-meaning bishop asked why I didn’t make my husband attend his priesthood meetings. Having our bishop assign responsibility to me for my husband’s church attendance awoke me to the futility of trying to manage another person’s spirituality—at least until we had children.

I took the responsibility to teach our children the gospel seriously—too seriously. When our daughter, Aroo, rebelled against church, I feared loss of testimony would be followed by moral transgression and a lifetime of heartache. I pleaded, ordered, and punished to force church conformity on Aroo. She finally told me she had never believed any of the stuff she’d heard at church. I berated myself for bad parenting—not realizing my bad parenting wasn’t in failing to teach my child religious doctrine. My bad parenting was trying to force her to believe as I did. Curiously enough, several girls in her age group committed moral transgressions, and all changed direction, married in the temple, and conformed to the Mormon lifestyle. Maybe sin wasn’t the dominant factor in happiness and success as I had believed.

In an ironic twist after 35 years of marriage, George became the more faithful member while my belief in Mormon history and doctrine dwindled. When I no longer believed that God cared what kind of underwear I wore, George reacted with panic.  I was jeopardizing our chance to be together with our children as an eternal family. In the context of Mormon theology, my personal loss of belief affected George as much as myself. The second Article of Faith says man will be punished for his own sins and not for Adam’s transgression, yet George’s hopes for an eternal family depend on my belief and activity.

 The doctrine of eternal families unifies a family of believers, but divides those with one or more non-believers. The Book of Mormon promises that everyone who earnestly seeks will gain a spiritual confirmation of its truth. Therefore a person who doesn’t believe must not be trying or must not be a righteous person. In practice, this justifies divorcing a spouse who cannot accept Mormon teachings.  I doubt many LDS marriages fail only because of religious differences, but non-belief and adultery by the spouse are probably the two most socially acceptable reasons Mormons use to explain their divorces.

We Mormons would do well to adopt a teaching of Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh: “Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education.”

In the Dark of December

I heard a bird sing in the dark of December . . . . “We are nearer to Spring/Than we were in September.” Although the mind comprehends the seasonal cycle, the spirit does not. As light steadily decreases day by day in December, the human soul fights the darkness into which the earth descends with holidays of food, music, light, gatherings of fellow beings.

Finally the solstice arrives—the earth begins tilting back toward the sun and light lengthens each day. Cold persists, but hope arises, fed by earlier dawns and later sunsets—if only by seconds at first.

Everything on earth dies—even mountains crumble. Only the solar cycles and the waves of the sea repeat endlessly. Finite human minds yearn to be eternal. As we descend into later years, we struggle against the ravages of age. Religion comforts us when loved ones lose the battle with mortality. They have been renewed in a better place—but no such hope accompanies our own demise.

Blind and locked in dementia, 86-year-old Aunt Loosy fights to stay alive—fearing that if she lies down and closes her sightless eyes, she will not awaken. She fights to go home—not to a heaven where loved ones await her, but to her old house with a body renewed for another season of light and work. Neither modern medicine nor religion offers her that hope. Like Dylan Thomas, Aunt Loosy refuses to “go gentle into that good night.” She continues raging “against the dying of the light.” Birds sing in December and the human heart takes joy even as light and energy decrease—but the human body is not on a seasonal cycle. For us, the dying of the light is permanent. Spring will not always come—at least not as we have known it.

“. . . Are We Not All Beggars?” (Mosiah 4:19)

As I approached my car parked along a street in a less affluent part of Salt Lake City, a thin, gray-haired man spoke to me from the sidewalk. His voice was soft and hoarse, so I walked through the snow to the sidewalk to hear him although I was pretty sure he was asking for money. He said he’d just arrived from Texas and had caught a cold and wondered if I could spare a dollar or two for him to buy some cough drops.

I have a strong prejudice against facilitating negative behavior—and I define begging as negative behavior—so I generally refer panhandlers to the homeless shelter or Salvation Army—and donate to support these organizations. Habit kicked in and I referred the man to the shelter instead of giving him cash. He looked so pathetic and disappointed that my conscience burned. As I drove away, I realized I could have offered to buy the man some cough drops or food in the nearby mini-mart. Or I could have just handed him a couple of bucks. How could I be so unfeeling to a fellow creature on a cold day a week before Christmas?

I confessed my lack of compassion to George when I returned home. He tried to salve my conscience by telling me the man might have gotten angry and violent if I’d offered to buy him food instead of giving him cash. Nice try, George. I was bigger and stronger than that poor, old man.

An hour later, George and I were approached by a woman in a supermarket parking lot. She said her car had broken down and she needed $2 or $3 to take the bus to Salt Lake. “Bus fare is $1.00 for senior citizens,” I told her. George knew I needed to repent for refusing the sad, old man in Salt Lake, and handed her four quarters. As the woman walked away, a store employee picking up shopping carts asked if we’d been solicited for money and told us he’d seen her doing that yesterday. Maybe if I’d followed my conscience the first time, I could have held my ground against the scam artist.

My friend, Tanzy, insists all panhandlers are scam artists being supported in luxury by the gullible. She knows this because she heard a man on talk-radio relate his career as a street beggar in Salt Lake during the ‘70s. He claimed to have made $70,000 year by driving his Cadillac downtown, parking it in a mall garage, then hitting the streets pretending to be a college student needing bus fare to get to his classes at the University.

My brother who does math in his head heard Tanzy and said since buses don’t run on Sundays and holidays, the man couldn’t have played his scam more than 200 days a year—necessitating a take of $350 a day to achieve a $70,000 annual income. With bus fare about 25 cents in the ‘70s, approximately 1400 people a day would have to ante up a quarter—or about 140 people per hour, if he worked ten hours a day. We found it implausible that anyone could consistently talk 20 people a minute out of a quarter in Salt Lake City in the ‘70s.

Believing her talk-show source frees Tanzy from guilt over refusing to fork over cash to beggars. My daughter, Lolly, gives to every beggar although knowing that many times her money will go for booze or drugs. Straddling the fence on this issue gives me a pain in the heart as well as the butt. I think I need to go with Lolly’s approach. I doubt anyone who isn’t desperate would beg—whether they need the money for food or for pain relief. And who am I to judge people who probably lacked the advantages I’ve enjoyed—loving parents, a secure home, and an education?

Loving Kindness

Loving kindness is a Buddhist term which defines right action on the Eightfold Path to enlightenment. It’s also the title of a wonderful book by Sharon Salzberg.    The best bumper sticker I’ve seen proclaims, “Loving Kindness if My Religion.” Not a bad motto for people of any denomination.

One of my favorite meditations is to recall all the people who have shown kindness and love to me throughout my life—starting with my parents. The list is lengthy and the memory-walk always leaves me feeling peaceful, grateful, and hopeful that I can pass along the love and kindness I’ve received to others.

Mitch Albom wrote about the five people he hopes to meet in heaven. Because I’ve been remiss in offering thanks in this life, I have scores of people I’d like to thank in heaven.

I have to admit that some of the kindness I’ve received hasn’t been appreciated at the moment. I remember being angry with my dad when I was 12 or 13. I stormed to my grandmother’s house to snitch on my ogre father—forgetting that Grandma was Dad’s mother. Instead of sympathy, which never helps, Grandma told me in no uncertain terms that my dad worked hard to support and care for my brothers and me since my mother died. I needed to be helping, not harassing Dad.

Another act of kindness I didn’t enjoy was Cousin Buffy’s criticism of my junior high taste in clothes. To avoid Buffy’s censure—I tempered my “throwing on whatever is handy” style to a more coordinated approach and avoided ridicule from peers.

A couple of teachers at transition points—9th grade and Freshmen year of college—kindly gave my sloppy first assignments low grades which shocked me, but motivated greater effort.

Kindness comes in many forms.

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