An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘prayer’

Religion through Irreverence

Anne Lemott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow, would be a great lesson manual for Priesthood/Relief Society if the curriculum committee realized that Lemott’s honest prayers, like “God help me not to be such an ass” are more spiritual than most of the “vain repetitions” Mormons are conditioned to offer.

Unfortunately, many Church members struggle with problems which current lesson manuals don’t address: poverty, financial insecurity, work that takes parents from home too many hours a week, mental illness, debilitating physical problems, abuse, and addiction.

Would it destroy our faith to admit that God gives light and knowledge to non-Mormons? To have lessons that step outside our own small circle and use thoughts from inspired, non-Mormon thinkers?

Mormons often have the idea that life will run smoothly so long as we obey gospel principles. Lemott is more realistic. She tells us:

. . . we learn that people are very disappointing, and that they break our hearts, and that very sweet people will be bullied, and that we will be called to survive unsurvivable losses, and that we will realize with enormous pain how much of our lives we’ve already wasted with obsessive work or pleasing people or dieting. We will see and read about deprivation and barbarity beyond our ability to understand, much less process.

For Lemott, the answer to the horrors of a world we can’t control, is to pray, “Help!” and “find God in our human lives”—in the people who do unasked for acts of kindness, and for moments of intuition that allow us to take a step in the right direction.

Mormons often measure our spiritual growth by how many meetings we attend, callings we fulfill, and scriptures we read. I prefer Lemott’s measurement:

Have you become more generous . . . ? Or more patient, which is a close second? Did your world become bigger and juicier and more tender? Have you become ever so slightly kinder to yourself? This is how you tell.

Lamott believes it’s more important to thank God with actions than with words:

. . . God’s idea of a good time is to see us picking up litter. God must love to see us serving food at the soup kitchen at Glide Memorial Church, or hear us calling our meth-head cousin just to check in because no one else in the family speaks to him.

I love Lemott’s definition of sin: “Sin is not the adult bookstore on the corner. It is the hard heart, the lack of generosity, and all the isms, racism and sexism and so forth.” I doubt it would undermine Mormon core values to open up our discussion of sin beyond sexual transgression.

Besides her quirky, irreverent sense of humor, Lamott has a gift for poetry. She describes a hike in the hills on a day when, “The scent of spring was as light as goodness.”  The prayer she offered was answered when, “the wind had blown away much of my unhappiness.”

I believe prayer is one of many topics which doesn’t need to be forced into a right-way/wrong-way point of view. Unfortunately, the curriculum committee is unlikely to take my advice and choose uplifting books by non-member authors as lesson manuals for Church classes. Fortunately, I can skip the 3-hour block of Sunday meetings and pursue inspiration that meets my needs from Lamott and other “worldly” sources.

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Talking to God

I like the way our sons have learned to pray since joining evangelical churches. Folded arms, learned within our family circle, have been replaced by joining hands. If the main purpose of folded arms for Mormon family prayers is to keep the kids from smacking each other, hand-holding takes this security measure a step further. Joining hands in prayer also gives a feeling of unity. Our daughter-in-law adds three gentle hand squeezes following the “amen”—signifying, “I love you.”

Our sons no longer use formal Mormon prayer language. Instead of the ritual, “Our Father in Heaven” and “In the name of Jesus Christ,” they speak as if they are talking to a person in the same room—not to a distant deity on a heavenly throne.

When our younger son was seeing his wife through a potentially dangerous childbirth, then dealing with her recovery, the newborn, their two-year-old, and a demanding job with a long commute—his prayers were brief: “God, we thank you for getting us through this day and pray for your continued help. Amen.” (Yes, I came to help their family, but the strain on him was still considerable).

Our elder son prefaces prayer by asking each member of the family who or what they want to pray for. Sometimes the answer from his young daughters includes a favorite toy or food.

Prayer is a unifying experience for a family. I’m glad our sons make meaningful prayer a daily occurrence in their homes.

Centering Life

Romeo and Juliet speak some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful lines: “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?/It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

And, “Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die,/ Take him and cut him out in little stars,/ And he will make the face of heaven so fine,/And all the world will be in love with night. . . .”

Beautiful poetry—but idolizing another person is poor personal policy, as the tragic ending of Shakespeare’s play proves. Human beings always disappoint. Ultimately, they will die.

We humans center our lives on different things: God, a significant other, a career, an organization, wealth, self-image, knowledge. Choices are as wide as the degrees of satisfaction they provide.

My mother died when I was 10, leaving me anchorless. God, a distant being besot for blessings once a day, was a poor substitute. My problems were my own to solve.

When my first child was born, I tried to center my life on God—hoping for divine help to raise this precious baby perfectly. By making God— or at least His church—the focus of my life, I expected guidance to do everything right for this child. But, I never received total inspiration.  My children suffered through colic, diaper rash, bed-wetting, sibling rivalry, and all the other traumas of childhood.

My brother, robbed of his mother at age two, needed divine intervention in his life, but my fasting and prayers drew no better response from God. Still I persevered. Once I perfected myself, God would answer.

After 15 years of marriage, George and I decided to leave Seattle, where he had a good job, and move to the safety of southern Utah before the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord. I fasted, prayed, and tried to obey every message I’d ever heard from the pulpit. A warm feeling, which I interpreted as confirmation of our decision, came during prayer.

 It was financial suicide.

Eventually, I realized that counting on God, or at least a human concept of God, leaves one open to disappointment. In the final analysis, I have found I can depend only upon myself.

At this point, I live in awe of what is greater than myself and of acceptance for what I cannot change. Life in a transient, often unpredictable world is not bad.

Talking to God

I found an interesting suggestion for prayer recently. A minister recommends the following four steps:

  • Thanks
  • Gimme—asking for needs and wants
  • Oops—admitting mistakes.
  •  Wow—praise and adoration.

The first two steps are common prayer ingredients, but the third and fourth stirred new thoughts in my mind about talking to God as a parent.

I suspect for most people, “Oops!” for mistakes is more relevant than repentance for transgression. Violating an arbitrary set of rules does not equal sin in my book. Sin is intentionally harming others—I could expand that to intentionally harming any of God’s creations, though I do recognize a hierarchy. As Ken Wilbur says, it’s better to kick a rock than an ape, better to eat a carrot than a cow.

Normal people do not intentionally sin, yet all of us unintentionally cause harm on occasion. We hurt feelings with harsh or critical words—usually to gratify our own egos. We neglect saying kind words or doing kind deeds that might help a person struggling with problems—I’m not talking about failing to offer service beyond the realm of our capability. We all have finite amounts of strength, means, and time. I am talking about acting upon our own self-interest while ignoring or even trampling the needs and rights of others.

Buddhism calls negative behaviors “unskillful” rather than “sinful.” Labeling ourselves as sinners and beating ourselves up is as likely to make us defend our  unskillful actions as to actually improve our behavior. But when we realize we’ve behaved selfishly to any of God’s creations, we owe him an “Oops!”

The fourth step of prayer, “Wow!”,most intrigues me. The minister defined “Wow!” as praise. I have a problem with that. If I were God, I wouldn’t want to be praised. Praise embarrasses me—especially if it’s obligatory. I suspect God is free from the human need for ego food. While gratitude is always appropriate, God undoubtedly knows of his own goodness. But I do like the idea of “Wow!”—expressing excitement and enthusiasm for small miracles of the day—for gold, pink and coral clouds mounding into a perfect sunset, for an unsought flash of insight, for the softness of a child nestled on my lap, for the warmth of an unexpected hug—for friends, family, love, beauty—all that makes life a wondrous experience.

 “Wow!” is more than thanks. “Wow!” is an instantaneous expression of joy for a moment of being. And what better way to please a parent? I delight in an unexpected phone call from a daughter who wants to share the joy of watching her kids coasting on new fallen snow. Or from a son calling to say three frisky goats have just been delivered to his backyard, hopefully to eat his crop of pernicious bamboo. If God is anything like earthly parents, I’m sure he gets a celestial kick when we take joy in the wonders of life, great or small, and direct thanks to the source of all goodness.

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