An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for February, 2011

A Lady Knows When to Leave the Party

My brother’s father-in-law died last week at age 93. Hector had always said he didn’t want life support at the end, but he went to the hospital several weeks ago for heart problems. He rallied and was sent home with an oxygen tank. A few days later he was returned to the hospital. This time he was released to a care center—with a catheter. Every few days he was back in the hospital. A respirator was added to his support system to ease his breathing. Finally a feeding tube was added. The cost of prolonging Hector’s life for a few more weeks of misery was probably hundreds of thousands of dollars. I don’t know whether he or the family made the decision for each phase of life support added. Life is precious and these are tough decisions to make for self or family.

Historian, Barbara Tuchman, died at age 77. She refused extended treatment for her terminal cancer saying, “A lady knows when to leave the party.”

 My 79-year-old Aunt Hero refused to eat or drink after surgery for a broken hip and died within a week. She knew years of steroid treatment for her asthma had left her bones so brittle that the rest of her life would be spent in a wheelchair or hospital for repeated breaks.

It’s easy to say, “No life support” for ourselves or loved ones while we’re healthy. The tough decisions come when essential body parts prove they have an expiration date. And who wants to leave a party that’s still going strong for everybody else?

Hazards–Physical As Well As Moral

I live in a Utah community where people care about their children. They worry about their children being exposed to pornography. They hesitate to take their children to restaurants and events in Salt Lake City where  homosexual couples may be present. They oppose gay marriage for the bad example it sets. Children who live three blocks from the elementary school are driven to school by mothers who fear sexual predators—although no one can tell me of any attempts to pick up children in this area. My neighbors do their best to protect their children from every sex-related harm possible—and I don’t fault them for that.

What I do find curious is the fact that these same neighbors worry so little about their children’s physical environment. Junior high kids in our neighborhood walk to school on a narrow sidewalk next to a heavily trafficked street with no shoulder. One step off the sidewalk and a kid is in the pathway of a fast-moving car or truck. No parents express concern for this physical hazard—the expense of widening sidewalks would, no doubt, defeat any such proposal.

Our area frequently has the most polluted air in the nation during winter months. Smoke billows from refineries and power plants in our area day and night. My neighbors oppose abortion as an unconscionable act upon the unborn, but raise no concerns that the polluted air we breathe can seriously damage a fetus. One neighbor told me her pediatrician recommended a move to keep their four-year-old free from the respiratory ailments that afflict him all winter. Yet, a state legislator who opposed a bill prohibiting a new refinery in our area was returned to office this year with a wide majority. Utah Mormons pretty well vote a straight party ticket unless the Republican candidate has been involved in a sex scandal.

I understand that Mormons hear much more from the pulpit about pornography and gay marriage than they do about clean air and traffic safety. But, Mormon scripture encourages members to “do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.” (D&C 58:27) Maybe we need to expand our definition of righteousness to include more than sexual purity. Or maybe taking initiative on our own should be extolled as much as obedience to church leaders.

The Impatience of Job

The Book of Job has a fairytale-like beginning: “There was a man in the land of Uz named Job.” The setting is an ancient, pastoral land. Job’s wealth is measured in herds of animals. Although the setting fits better with the time of Abraham than with the later prophets, most scholars believe the book was composed between 600 and 400 BCE. Chapters one and two may have originated as a much older oral tale.

I find this book slow-going after the first two chapters. Job’s conversation with his unsympathetic friends lasts much longer than my attention span. For those who want a short, pithy version of Job, check out Jana Riess’s Twitter version.

Job is a complex story and the King James Version is not as useful as newer translations based on the best available Hebrew texts. The Hebrew word translated as Satan in the KJV more literally means “accuser” or “adversary.” The Adversary apparently functions as a sort of patrolman reporting on God’s earthly creatures. (1:6-8)

Chapter One lists Job’s impressive list of virtues. The Adversary poses a question: Is Job good only because he’s so richly blessed? God agrees to let the Adversary try Job by stripping him of his possessions—everything but his life—although the lives of Job’s children are not exempt from the wager.

With his wealth and children gone, and tortured by boils, Job does not curse God, but comes close as he rails against the injustice inflicted upon him. (The term “patience of Job” comes from James 5:11—James apparently not having read the middle chapters).

 Job demands of God: “Does it benefit You to defraud/To despise the toil of Your hands/While smiling on the counsel of the wicked?/Do You have the eyes of flesh?/Is Your vision that of mere men?/ . . . It is something to be proud of to hunt me like a lion/To show Yourself wondrous through me time and again!” (10:3-4, 16) He accuses God to his friends saying: “He destroys the blameless and the guilty/When suddenly a scourge brings death/He mocks as the innocent fail.” (9:22-24) While Job stops short of cursing God, these are hardly the words of patience personified.

Job’s friends offer him conventional wisdom: The righteous are blessed; only the wicked are punished. Job, however, knows he’s done nothing to deserve the punishment he’s receiving.

Mormons, as well as other Christians, often quote Job 19:25-26: “I know that my redeemer liveth/ . . .  And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God,” as a passage about Christ and the resurrection. The Hebrew word “go’el” translated as redeemer in the KJV is “the legal term for the person in the family responsible for avenging the murder of other members.” (Jewish Study Bible, 1529) Newer Bible versions translate “go’el” as vindicator. Scholars tend to believe the reference to seeing God in his flesh refers to either having a spiritual meeting with God in this life or Job living to see his vindicator avenge him. According to Bible scholars, the notion of an afterlife developed very late in the Hebrew religion. In several verses Job speaks of going “the way of no return” and of death as final. (Job 7:21; 14:10, 14; 16:22; 17:13-16)

God finally appears in chapter 38, but answers no questions and offers no comfort as He compares Job’s puny human abilities to His own might. The only comfort Job receives is hearing God accuse his friends of false statements when they presented their conventional wisdom—that suffering is punishment for sin.

God restores Job’s fortunes—even blessing him with ten new children—and in a culture that considered children as property—receiving ten new children to replace the ten who were killed would be just. Job lives happily ever after. We are left not knowing why suffering exists, but realizing that conventional wisdom—the righteous prosper and the wicked suffer—has limitations.

They Never Had a Chance

We received a letter from Nyleen, a lonely relative, this week. Nyleen’s mother was a depressed, fearful woman who disliked and distrusted everyone. She was verbally, possibly physically, abusive. Nyleen never had friends. She married shortly after high school and produced six children in rapid succession. She apparently copied her mother’s parenting skills. At one point we heard that child welfare services investigated her home.  With her children gone and her health poor, Nyleen would be alone except for her ward. Members take her to church, but no church can cure problems as serious as Nyleen’s. George read her letter, shook his head, and said, “Nyleen never had a chance.”

George’s stepson, Skipper, looked him up a few years ago. George was the stepfather Skipper remembered as Dad. Skipper, the eldest of three kids by three different fathers, functioned as the adult in his family. When he was ten, his mother sent him 30 miles on a Greyhound bus each week to pick up her mail—her attempt to outwit bill collectors. Skipper, like Nyleen, picked up many of his mother’s relationship skills. We met Skipper’s wife and liked her a lot, but she filed for divorce when she could no longer live with his manipulation and refusal to accept responsibility. Alone now and in poor health, we worry about Skipper. He didn’t ask for the life he was given.

Scores of kids I’ve taught in schools in middle-class neighborhoods have been rooted in the poor soil of dysfunctional families. I can only imagine teaching in an inner-city school where a majority of kids come from homes filled with drug and alcohol abuse, instability, violence, and deprivation. Television news programs show us the hopelessness of impoverished people trying to subsist in poor countries under oppressive regimes. Heart-rending stories of children conscripted as child soldiers or sold into the sex trade are regularly found on the media—usually not even as headliners. From what I’ve seen, many—possibly a majority—of people in this world have little choice in their circumstances.

I know many successful people have arisen from the depths of poverty.  People have surmounted social, economic and physical handicaps, but how many people overcome mental illness without medical intervention? How many normal adults have overcome a childhood of abuse or deprivation of love without professional help?

If agency, as many believe, is God’s greatest gift to His children, why doesn’t He give it equally to all? Unequally given agency strikes me as heartless as grace and salvation extended only to the elect.

Wisdom Literature–Proverbs

I tend to read the Bible more as history than as scripture. The stories of the Pentateuch develop fascinating characters, but I view them as mythological explanations for the creation of the earth and the creation of the Israelite nation—although I don’t go quite so far as Brigham Young and call them “fairy stories.”  

For me, the prophets are pretty tedious reading. Who can blame the Israelites for not listening to grumpy oddballs, sometimes running around naked (Isaiah 20:2), and predicting destruction? And if many of the calamities described by the prophets were really eschatological—about events thousands of years in the future—then no wonder the Israelites found these messages irrelevant.  While some of the Psalms are quite beautiful, too many of them are whiny or strike me as over-the-top flattery trying to get God to grant the petitioner’s wishes.

But the Wisdom Literature—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job—those, I love. The authors of these books do not claim to be speaking for God. They are thoughtful humans relating wisdom gained from their earthly experiences. Proverbs, although attributed to Solomon, was more likely composed by numerous authors at a much later date—probably after the Babylonian exile. Modern scholars believe many passages were taken from more ancient Egyptian wisdom books, particularly The Instruction of Amenemope.

Recognizing that the proverbs are not direct revelation from God frees people from taking every admonition seriously such as: “A slave cannot be disciplined by words/ Though he may comprehend, he does not respond.” (29:19) Beating slaves—and children—for that matter, is not part of modern philosophy. My neighbor, whose biological time clock was set for evening rather than morning, could have used this information to counter her husband’s interpretation of “Early to bed, early to rise” as a commandment.

I like the short, pithy statements of Proverbs: “When the wicked dominate the people groan.” (29:2)  Some verses have poetic beauty: “Three things are beyond me/Four I cannot fathom/ How an eagle makes its way over the sky/ How a snake makes its way over a rock/ How a ship makes its way through the high seas/ How a man has his way with a maiden.” (30:18-19)  (All quotes are from the Jewish Publication Society translation.)

My hackles are raised by Prov. 31:10-31—the description of a “virtuous woman.” I seethe at the praise heaped upon this competent, but overworked woman busy night and day with housekeeping, horticulture, earning money, and caring for her children while hubby sits at the gates all day with “the elders of the land.”

Proverbs is a classic because most verses contain truths about coping with an often harsh world. Pride, dishonesty, laziness and drunkenness are all eschewed, and hard work, thrift, and generosity are extolled. Still, it is possible to come away from Proverbs with the notion that people bring all misfortune upon themselves. To find the perspective that many things in life are beyond our control, we must turn to Ecclesiastes which I’ve written about here.

“I Teach Them Correct Principles . . . .”

When asked how Nauvoo was governed, Joseph Smith answered: “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.” Watching the wacky politics in action during Utah’s legislative session makes me wonder if the right “correct principles” are being taught in Mormon meetings. Utah, like much of the country, is gripped in a culture of fear—a fear of losing our economic advantages—a fear of those of other color and ethnicity. State legislators are currently considering an immigration bill patterned after the controversial Arizona law. Guns are seen as the solution to violence—a bill was passed designating the Browning M1911 as the state firearm.

Church leaders certainly have supported humane treatment for illegal immigrants. The church has also spoken up against discrimination against homosexuals, and it opposes violence. Still, a huge disconnect exists between official church positions and the way many Mormons treat others. Perhaps more church time should be spent teaching basic Christian doctrine.

A few years ago, our stake presidency set a goal to return stake members back to basics. Their list included: (1) Scripture reading, (2) Prayer, (3) Meeting attendance, (4) Temple attendance, and (5) Family home evening. I looked at their list  and asked, “Where is Love?”

I suspect most Mormons would answer “obedience” if asked to name the first principle of the gospel because of the emphasis placed on this principle in auxiliary lessons and conference talks. Other lesson and sermon topics frequently repeated include: Sharing the gospel, tithing, priesthood ordinances, chastity, temple work, genealogy, the atonement, and the last days. Much less frequent are lessons on the core Christian and Judeo values of love, compassion, kindness, generosity, and honesty. In the Gospel Principles manual currently used for Priesthood/Relief Society lessons, only five of 47 lessons are specifically geared toward these traditional Christian values.

While it is possible that doctrinal lessons on tithing, the sacrament, and temple marriage encourage  Christian behavior, I see a gap—much like the gap between the rigid adherence of the Pharisees to Mosaic laws or rules and their neglect of the higher law of love and compassion.

When I hear active Mormons insist they don’t want their tax money going to feed hungry children because, “It’s their parents’ job to feed them” or argue against restricting persons from carrying guns within 1000 feet of a school because, “They are trying to take away our freedom,” I suspect the 3-hour block isn’t helping these members become more like their savior. Maybe we need more lessons based on the teachings of Jesus rather than on obedience and ordinances.

 President Uchtdorf presented his own list of basics last General Conference: (1) relationship with God, (2) relationship with family, (3) relationship with self, and (4) relationship with others. Organizing lessons around these priorities would facilitate teaching the basic message of Christianity:    “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind. . . . Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself” (Matt 22:37-39). Joseph Smith was right—living basic Christian principles is the key to governing ourselves.

Lost and Found Loves

I fell in love for the first time in 2nd grade. Our class had been lined up and marched to the nurse’s office for immunizations. Back in our classroom, the teacher noticed Richard was missing. She found him crying in the coat hall. My heart fluttered. I wanted to cry, but lacked Richard’s courage. I was smitten—even after I moved to another school.

I remained true to Richard’s memory until 5th grade when I sat across the aisle from handsome Lamon Stewart. Lamon lived in my ward. Every school or church teacher meeting Lamon for the first time pronounced his name, “Laman?” Lamon always corrected them with a touch of arrogance at their stupidity. “It’s La Mon.” I found his name quite dashing. I found Lamon dashing until the day he came to school with his hair frizzed in a perm his 16-year-old sister had inflicted on him. Visualizing Lamon with a head full of pink Toni curlers ruined my feeling for him.

All the girls in my 6th grade class swooned when blonde, curly-headed Byron Penwood walked into our room. Even his name was romantic, although I’d never heard of the poet Byron. Somehow, I associated the name Byron with a Greek god. Byron never noticed me. In May the 6th graders took a field trip to Liberty Park. Byron took Drusilla, the prettiest girl in class, on all the rides. I watched them snuggle together on the Tilt-a-Whirl and hoped Drusilla would puke on him.

A new boy moved into town at the beginning of 9th grade. Chuck Nelson—tall, dark and as close to handsome as a gawky 9th grader can get. All the girls were in love with him. I used to walk past his house on my way home from school despite the fact that it was ten blocks out of my way. I had to let Chuck know my feelings. I composed notes in Spanish and convinced my brother Dooby—who had 7th grade science in the same room the period before my science class with Chuck—to leave the anonymous notes on Chuck’s desk. Fortunately, Dooby never considered how easy it would be to humiliate me by adding my name to the notes. Family solidarity is a wonderful thing.

In high school I found geeky guys who had crushes on me, but finally dated a cute guy named Lance who returned my feelings and initiated me into the pleasure of making-out in drive in movies. My freshmen year of college, I attended a small school with three times as many single guys as girls and my social life kept up with my crushes.

When I returned home for the summer, George asked me out. George was definitely not a geek, but  he had the crush, not me. After dating for awhile, I realized that I missed George when he wasn’t around, and realized I was in love. Even after 150 years of years of loving and annoying each other, we’re still friends. And when George starts rocking to the music in his old bad- boy form at Gold’s Gym, I recognize the object of my final crush.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

War on (_____Fill in the Blank with Abstract Noun of Your Choice_____)

I’m sick of the War on Terror. By definition, wars are waged against nations. How can we win a war against an abstract noun? It’s not like we won the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, the War on Hunger or the short-lived War on Cancer.

Wars require a politically and geographically defined enemy. Wars have definable goals, as in: Beat the enemy until they’re all dead—or at least incapable of doing you further harm. Victors know they’ve won when they have destroyed all the enemy’s cities and killed all their people. Bombing Afghanistan for the past decade has destroyed cities and villages and killed people, but has not kept terrorists from exploding bombs in Spain, England, India, Indonesia, and other countries. Nor has it discouraged zealots from trying to blow up their underpants on airliners over US cities. What country should we be bombing?  Who do we expect to surrender?

Wars require an enemy with a political leader with whom to negotiate. Osama bin Laden occasionally speaks to true believers through grainy videos, but al-Qaeda groups directed by local leaders spring up not only in the Middle-East, but in Africa, Europe, and other parts of the world. While bin Laden may be their inspiration, he does not appear to control a cohesive international organization. Not all terrorist groups are affiliated with al-Qaeda, and not all those who commit acts of terror are Muslims or foreigners. The Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, the Columbine shooters, and other perpetrators of violence were 100% American.

If our current WOT is as successful as our three decades-old War on Drugs, I suggest we save our money. We don’t have to declare victory and surrender—as we did in Vietnam —but we could recognize the fact that the WOT isn’t real. We will always have individual and group sociopaths willing to commit acts of violence against innocent people. These people need to be apprehended and punished. But we should not dignify their actions by labeling the perpetrators as war combatants.

Over 40 years of Cold War conflict probably accustomed Americans to framing every problem in military terms, but how about choosing less costly (in terms of lives and money) campaigns? If we must declare war—how about a war on people who use the words “conservative,” “liberal,” and “progressive” as pejoratives?

The Bishopric Is Coming

The ward executive secretary called to schedule a visit from our new bishopric tonight. The first counselor dropped by Saturday to extend a calling to me: “How would you like to be the Webelos leader?” “I would just hate it,” I answered with more truth than tact. The visit ended with George agreeing to do emergency preparedness training and my offering to help a young immigrant in the ward learn English. I declined the invitation to attend Sunday meetings because, “I’ve heard all the lessons and talks—multiple times.” I thought that should put an end to re-activation efforts.

I know George and I are dead weight on the ward records—dragging down the attendance stats. With centralized financing, slipping a few bucks into an envelope to cover the food we eat at socials doesn’t help the ward budget much. In all honesty, we should have our names removed from the roster. But George maintains a glimmer of hope for an eternal family life, so we remain a burden to our ward.

There is no inoffensive way to tell anyone you don’t share their religious convictions. I don’t want to offend these good men who are taking time from their families to visit us, but I can’t help wishing they could like us for who we are instead of loving us for who they want us to become.

Crisis of Faith

As a child, I enjoyed neither Primary nor Sunday School. My dad worked Sundays and my mother had to get dinner or care for my baby brother on Sunday mornings, so my brother Dooby and I were sent to church only half the time. But I knew I should go—something about blessings bestowed for seat time. I felt guilty when I didn’t attend—something about disappointing Heavenly Father. Church attendance for guilt appeasement continued until I left Utah. Our ward in Casper, Wyoming was so welcoming—the people so interesting—that one morning as I dressed for church, I was shocked to realize I looked forward to meeting my friends there and learning their take on the gospel.

Church attendance generally inspired me for almost 20 years. Sisters in Relief Society provided the wisdom I would have received had my mother lived longer. Scripture study in Gospel Doctrine class fed me intellectually and spiritually as we spent two years each delving into both Old and New Testaments. Repeated study of the Book of Mormon—my least favorite of the four standard works—helped me winnow spiritual gems such as King Benjamin’s admonition to share with the poor without judging whether they deserve their misfortune for, “are we not all beggars?” Alma’s teachings that the baptismal covenant includes being “willing to bear one another’s burdens” was another spiritual find.

Mormon meetings and activities met my social needs—especially when I became a Stay-at-Home-Mom and had no other access to adult company. Church provided spiritual comfort. I was taught, and in turn taught, that Heavenly Father is a kind, loving parent who would guide me in making wise decisions, help me deal with challenges, and raise my children righteously.

After sixteen years of marriage, George and I decided we needed a change in our lives. Instead of having separate flings, we decided to move. We fasted and prayed for guidance, received a confirmation, then plunged ahead into the worst financial decision of our lives. Church isn’t a lot of comfort when you do something stupid. In fact, it makes it worse to associate with people who relate their experiences of fasting, praying, and getting the right answers. I struggled with God’s unwillingness to bless us when we were trying so hard to obey the commandments.

Before I’d resolved that crisis, the church decided to save money by recycling Relief Society lesson manuals. Lessons that were already fairly similar were repeated until I could not only recite the lines with the teacher, I could predict when Sister Wilson would share the time she had gone back to the grocery store to return the 86 cents extra change the checker had given her—or when Sister Barnes would describe walking out of a movie with inappropriate language. I replaced Relief Society with my own home schooling.

Sunday School held my attention for several years longer because lessons were based on passages of scripture. But even scriptures get tedious if only one interpretation is allowed. General Conference, which used to inspire me, lulled me to sleep. I’m not sure if the speakers changed or if I had just heard it all before. But not attending church left a hole in my life. I investigated several possibilities and found spiritual compatibility with Buddhist study.

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