An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘repentance’

God Gives Second Chances

Novelist Judith Freeman gave a reading in Salt Lake last week. Born in Utah to a large Mormon family, married right after high school graduation, a mother at 18, Judith seemed set on the typical path for Mormon women of her era—stay-at-home-mom with a big family. Instead, she found herself divorced at age 32, supporting herself and child with a series of entry-level jobs. A few years later, her son chose to live with his father and Judith moved to LA and became a writer.

I find her story fascinating because the more common course for a divorced Mormon woman is to repent of real or imagined trespasses and pray for a good man to take her to the temple. Mormons, especially women, often sacrifice goals and dreams in this life in hopes of qualifying for a next life—a marvelous concept—but supported by no empirical evidence.

Judith Freeman’s fulfilling life contrasts with that of Jenny, a young woman I met last summer. A have-to marriage at age 17 and years of berating from herself and others for her “transgression,” have shackled Jenny with sadness and shame which more children—legally conceived—and a temple sealing have not healed.

Had I the voice of an angel, I would tell Mormon youth, especially girls who carry the brunt of stigma for sexual experience, that life isn’t over when you have to suffer the consequences of immature choices and actions. Violating social and church rules of conduct does not make a person bad or undeserving of God’s love or of a better future. What harms people more than “sin” is being beaten up for stepping off the straight and narrow. God is better than that.

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Repentance or Acceptance?

My sister, Edy, developed a brain tumor four years ago. The cancer spread to her bones and liver. She told me recently that she is almost glad for her disease because it has moved her to a spiritual and emotional dimension that usually comes much later in life, if at all.

Edy began questioning the faith of her childhood on her LDS mission 30 years ago. She met wonderful people of other faiths with strong testimonies and spiritual experiences—not something her Utah upbringing had prepared her for. Ten years later, Edy knew Mormonism wasn’t working for her, but had no replacement. Her disease has pushed her into exploring Eastern meditation and religious philosophy.

Edy told me of the peace she feels, even with her uncertain health. She has quit striving for perfection—an impossible goal for human beings. As she has learned to accept herself, she finds herself less critical of others. She has noticed that people react to her differently—often confiding in her.

Edy is my half sister and we haven’t had close contact until recently, so she and I were unaware that we were on the same spiritual journey at the same time. I agreed with her that the idea of acceptance of oneself—warts and all, and other flawed people induces peace. It’s not that we don’t try to improve—but we learn not to be attached to the outcome of our efforts.

Talking to Edy, I wondered—is there a teaching equivalent to acceptance in Christianity? I thought of repentance. Certainly, repentance encourages us to forgive ourselves and others—but repentance implies that our faults are bad—even wicked. Although Jesus told us to forgive others until 70 times seven, he also told the woman taken in adultery, “Go and sin no more.” The second message is the one I’ve heard most often in Mormon discourse. Repentance brings forgiveness—but only if we never repeat the trespass.

Now, I’m all for people who commit crimes being locked up if they can’t be trusted to “sin no more,” but most of us are guilty of lesser infractions such as: Temper, impatience, lust, selfishness, greed, and overindulgence. The notion that we will forever avoid these transgressions defies reason.

Much better to see our faults as unskillful behaviors that prevent us from getting what we want from life. Beating ourselves up for being human just drives our flaws into hiding where they fester and erupt in more destructive ways.

Loving my grumpy self while encouraging more skillful interaction with others works better for me than pretending I’m always Ms Happy-Happy-Joy-Joy.

No Regrets

On a long car trip together, my friend Sheila confessed she was four months pregnant when she married her first husband. “You can never put that behind you,” she said. “I was chaperoning the kids in our ward on a Youth Conference when Cole sat beside me on the bus and asked when his dad and I got married. I told him and he looked and me and said, ‘You were married November 22 and I was born March 16. Were you . . . ?’ That was not the time I would have chosen to tell him. If only I hadn’t been stupid enough to have sex with that jerk I thought I was in love with.”

“But then you wouldn’t have Cole,” I reminded her. “And that would be tragic.”

Mortals make mistakes while muddling through an often confusing, indifferent world, and mistakes have consequences. But mistakes need not be tragic—and mistakes that were not deliberate attempts to harm someone else are not sins. Mistakes are effective, albeit painful, teachers. Sheila moved on, made a better second marriage, raised a good family, and became a high school teacher with wise compassion for kids struggling with peers, parents and hormones. Her youthful misstep is one ingredient in the mix that made Sheila the person she is today.

As a young sailor, George met his first wife while hanging out with lowlife buddies. That was one knot he wished he hadn’t tied while serving in the Navy. A few years ago, his stepson from that marriage contacted him. Skipper paid us a visit and re-established the bond he’d felt with the only real father-figure in his life. George no longer regrets the marriage that provided a bright spot in a boy’s sad childhood.

In Buddhism the pure and perfect lotus, growing from impure, stagnant water, is a symbol of enlightenment. Like the lotus, we can draw nutrients from the muddied water of poor choices and, with that nourishment, grow stronger and better.

Nobody would deliberately choose to mess up her life just for added strength; of course, and we don’t need to. We all make plenty of non-deliberate, poor decisions. So long as we learn from our errors and don’t keep plugging quarters into the same broken slot machine, mistakes move us along the path to spiritual and emotional maturity.

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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