Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Struggling to Keep the Shelf Intact

In my post on March I quoted Camilla Kimball and her idea about putting things on a shelf when it comes to stuff about the gospel that you don't understand. Sometimes I'm successful at keeping stuff on my shelf and sometimes I have to admit my shelf sags. Right now it's sagging pretty low. My heart aches with the pain and anguish that is caused by things that members high in our church say that to me feels wrong. When making analogies I think one should avoid making comparisons to something so large in history, with long-lasting repercussions, if you weren't an actual part of the event or were your ancestors.

Unfortunately there are no easy answers and I don't purport to have any. But it seems to me that with all the questions that surround this issue, church leaders would lean toward a more compassionate view. I wish they would not have jumped into the political realm where our honored respect for separation of church and state was blurred to the point of non-existence. It feels wrong to me to vote on a minority group's civil rights. I believe we are going to someday look back on this day and wonder what we were thinking. I hope that day comes in my lifetime. I hope that I can keep my own shelf propped up until then. I hope that the church doesn't keep pushing people away who need the loving teachings of Jesus Christ. Here's to hope.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In the "Thick of Thin Things..."

I didn't hear very much of the semi-annual conference of the LDS church. I was with my husband and some friends coming home from Yellowstone. I enjoy conference. Usually there's one stand-out talk, the one talk that makes you want to do better and keeps you thinking, and at least one talk that stands out for being controversial, one that makes us say, what the heck? I'm not sure if there was one like that...this time. You'll have to ask someone who listened to all of it.

I had heard a quote on the news that made me want to hear President Monson's talk so my husband and I listened to it together. It was a prod to be more kind, more involved in service and civility. I found it encouraging and enlightening. One phrase that struck me was this one: "We become so caught up in the busyness of our lives. Were we to step back, however, and take a good look at what we’re doing, we may find that we have immersed ourselves in the “thick of thin things.” In other words, too often we spend most of our time taking care of the things which do not really matter much at all in the grand scheme of things, neglecting those more important causes."

Stepping back. I examined my life and wondered where I would put the things I was involved with on that line. Imagine a line, thick on one end and thin on the other. Well after getting ready for my day I walked with a friend, both the walk and the friend are essential to me. I love my friend and we talk about life, love, and the importance of feeding the soul. Next, I rushed to do Visit Teaching. I was giving the lesson and chose Pres. Uctdorf's message on love. I have an awesome partner and visit three great women who are quite involved with the thickness in their own lives, thickness that seems to be just that--going back to school with teenage children and a husband to take care of, running the Boston Marathon, while being primary president and maintaining a strong family--and one sister who is doing every thing she can to make being a single mother of a baby work for the best.

When I was done with visiting teaching, I got home and listened to a phone message from a friend who wondered if I wanted to run some errands with her and get lunch. This friend also is very important to me. She teaches me every time I'm with her and we talk so much we miss exits and end up at wrong places, even wrong restaurants, so Yes I want to go--besides I need a few things too. When I got home from that activity--and remember I live clear out--about 15 miles from Logan, I needed to get busy working on an order (pottery.) I worked for a couple of hours and then met my husband to drop off a vehicle for repairs. Then I made dinner. It was great and I was ready to plop down in front of the television. I watched a couple of previously recorded shows. Then fell into bed close to midnight.

Most of my days are similar to this one, only sometimes I hike, sometimes I teach, sometimes I read, sometimes I chat with friends, check emails, blogs, write! What is thin and what is thick? Definitely watching television is thin---only sometimes it's thicker if you're watching a documentary on civil rights, or even conference, but I usually watch pretty thin stuff like Desperate Housewives which I love--but even that is a little thicker when we think about what we've seen and apply it. I don't mean have an affair with your gardener, if only I had a gardener and looked like Gabby, but that's another problem. But I mean what does it teach about relationships and life? There is meaning in the satire--believe me. It's a pretty fun show. Well obviously I'm not willing to cut that out. In fact there is nothing I'm willing to cut out. So... could I add say some thicker stuff to my life? Most definitely, but my life is pretty full now and pretty thick with things right in the middle of the line--not thin, but not too fat either. But wait friends? Family? I forgot about the great talk I had with my daughter who is hundreds of miles away--and work? That's all pretty fat stuff.

Okay so the secret might not be what you're doing but HOW you are doing it. For instance I used to think having a check-off list with things like readings scriptures, going to temple, baking cookies for new neighbor--was the way to increase my own spirituality--to stay in the THICK. Now I believe they have very little to do with it. It's not so much baking cookies for a new neighbor as it is saying the right words to welcome a new neighbor--smiling and grabbing something to carry into the house, and letting them know that you are happy they are there. This happened with us. We moved into our new house about 15 months ago. We had neighbors who tried to help us move in--they were all ready to go, but old neighbors from our old neighborhood already beat them to it. I had one neighbor who brought food so we could put stuff away and this same neighbor helped me wash all my windows, and vacuum all the new carpets. Another neighbor told me every time she saw me how glad she was that we moved into the neighborhood and how much she loved looking out her window and seeing our house! This was nice because we may have blocked her view, but she didn't see it that way. And then we had an open house where lots of old neighbors and friends and lots of potential friends came and brought food. We felt properly welcomed. Thick. Most of us have to work. Is work thin? No it's one of the essentials of life and teaches all kinds of things like responsibility and dedication and service, but it's all on how you do it. Have you ever been waited on at a grocery store by someone who was perhaps a little thin on the way they bagged your groceries? Don't you love it when someone does a menial job with a smile and a greeting? That person has found a way to make a thin thing pretty thick. I like that. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Thinness and thickness of life is all in the way we do it. I know there are some things that are just plain thin--you know what they are. Then there's things we waste are time on while neglecting real life, the here, the now. I think I'll stay right where I am--in the middle of the line, but I'll try to do everything I do with a little more meaning.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Seriously sometimes Life gets too serious.

Recently I learned that a friend is facing cancer. Cancer is one of those hovering clouds in my life since my father died from it when I was 22 years old. Anytime I deal with health issues myself, I wonder if it's cancer. Maybe everyone does--even those who don't have a father who died from it, I don't know. But for me cancer has lodged in the back of my brain, lurking and waiting to pounce whenever IT decides too. I live as healthy a life as possible, keeping ever vigilant--in part-- to keep this monster at bay. In the days of my father's cancer, treatment wasn't as advanced as it is today. Today, cancer can mean a lot of different things. But no matter what form it takes, it always causes serious reflection and serious examination of ones own place in the world.

My friend is a man of great faith. He's a Christian in the truest sense of the word. For "Steve" this was like a personal call from the Lord telling him to set his priorities straight and to get back to what matters most in life. Now if you knew Steve, you would think he's already in a pretty good place with his relationship with the Lord. Ever since I've known him, which hasn't been that long, I've kind of had the impression that he has a personal telephone line to the Lord. Steve talks a bit differently than most of my LDS friends, since he's of another faith, and from another region in the country. But one quickly knows that he is absolutely sincere and a man of integrity and graciousness.

I talked to another friend yesterday who faced a similar situation a few years ago. She said that from the time of the news to later that day, she'd already gone through the stages of grief, from a denial, anger, sadness, and eventually to acceptance. I know her cancer brought her closer to her husband, and that she never looked at life again in quite the same way. She found reservoirs of strength she didn't know she had. I imagine my friend Steve has already found those reservoirs. He's ahead of most of us--his faith is one of total acceptance that everything really is in the Lord's hands.

I often go back to a line that my favorite institute of religion instructor often said, and he may have been quoting someone else, I don't know, but he said--"Don't sacrifice what matters most for what matters least." That is something I constantly have to hit myself in the head with, and yet we do it often--daily. Or at least I do. I might miss out on a conversation with friend or family member that could deepen understanding in trade for something less important. Or something that seems important at the time, but won't have any lasting importance. Sometimes I talk, when I should be listening. Sometimes I pity myself and my own problems when I should be serving others. Sometimes I'm worrying when I should be doing. Sometimes though it all comes together and I do just the right thing at the right moment. I need more of those moments.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Every member a friend

Since I’ve never lived outside of Utah for more than three months, I’m about as Utah Mormon as they come–that is as far as geography. I grew up in one of those cities south of the Mormon curtain (the point of the mountain) that is over 90 % LDS.

Nevertheless, one of my best friends and next-door neighbors wasn’t a member. “Jamie” came to primary with me. In those days, primary was right after school on Tuesdays, and we walked in mass exodus directly from the school to the church house. I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like for someone of a different faith to walk alone in another direction.

It seemed natural for Jamie to come with me even though she wasn’t LDS. She was my friend and we did things together. She came not because she had any interest in the church, but because it was something to do. Besides primary was fun back then. And we got really cool green bandalos to wear with great looking icons glued onto them. When I was around ten, she decided that since she came to my church, that the fair thing would be for me to go to hers, a congregational church. She pressed me to come for a few weeks.

I really didn’t want to go to her church. It was a scary place with a great big brown cross and enormous windows, and of course I knew it was the wrong church. I wasn’t too worried though because I was sure my mom wouldn’t let me go. So to satisfy Jamie I told her that I would ask my mom. My mom surprised me. She said, for years now Jamie has been coming to primary, so it would be a nice thing, a friendly gesture for me to go with her. She told me that growing up in Montana in a small town there wasn’t an LDS branch, so her family had attended a church similar to Jamie’s.

So the day came. I was scared to death. My mom gave me some money to put in the collection plate. I walked with my friend down the block to the building I’d only peeked into through the windows. The chapel looked similar to ours with wooden benches. I remember the preacher dressed a little funny and preached a little differently than I was used to. He prayed with his eyes open and his arms outstretched. When it was time, I put my quarter in the basket. Next, we had a break and I finally saw the evidence I had expected, the evidence that the church was wrong. The adults sipped coffee and visited, while the kids ate cookies, drank punch, and ran outside for a few minutes.

After the break, we went to Sunday school class. It started out all right. My friend was there and the teacher started asking questions. She asked me the names of the first four books in the New Testament, and I froze. I could not remember even one of them. Of course I’d rattled them off in my own church. I had proof of that with a little plastic symbol of a book on my bandalo, but my mouth was completely dry. So the teacher started us off, and all the children chanted–Mathew, Mark, Luke… I was embarrassed. Here I belonged to the one true church and these kids seemed to know more than I did.

I made it through. And I never went back. I’m glad that my mother insisted that I go to church with my friend. I learned something I never forgot. Being in the minority can be intimidating, uncomfortable, and even frightening. It didn’t really sink in for a long time. I was well into adulthood before the lesson had its full impact on me. Being in the religious minority in Utah can be intimidating, uncomfortable, and at times frightening. Ask any person of another faith in Utah, and if they are honest with you, they will share negative experiences varying from slightly hurtful to horrific. We teach our children to share the gospel with their friends. Unfortunately with limited social skills our children may feel obligated to tell their playmates that their churches are wrong. Or they may ask them why they don’t attend the true church. Or they will tell their friends that their parents are bad because they drink beer, coffee, or smoke. StephnP (http://sciencebysteve.net/?p=220) a BYU Bio professor shares the following story which exemplifies this so well. “Of my fourth-grade playground I have one memory. It is an act of unkindness and my response. I had three friends. I don’t remember their names. Two were Mormons and the third was a Catholic. On that day, I found my Catholic friend crying between two buildings, sitting on the gravel with his head buried in his hands. I squatted down beside him and asked what was wrong. He looked at me afraid for a moment and then said, “They told me my church was not true.” Then from behind me I heard a voice say, “Because it’s not. We belong to the one true church. His is of the Devil.” There stood my other two Mormon friends. My friend not of our religion was crying and saying, “It’s not true. My church is not of the Devil.” My Primary friends said, “Your church is a lie. It’s not true.” And they started to walk away. I looked at my crying friend and moved to pity. I called after the retreating boys, “Maybe his church is true.” And I turned to him and said the same thing. It is strange to say, but I believed I was lying to him, but it felt so joyous to say. It was one of my first experiences with the Holy Ghost. I put my arm around him and said it again, “Maybe your church is true.” Again the warm feeling came. I was crying with him.
I’ve believed since, that kindness is a greater virtue than truth.”

Not too long ago I was asked to give a talk to youth on missionary work. What I hoped to convey to the young people in our ward was the same lesson I learned as a child. Being in the minority, any minority is intimidating. I believe we should teach and really mean it, every member a friend. It’s easy to be a friend and infinitely beneficial. A friend invites to include others and makes them feel welcome. A friend respects beliefs. A friend is doesn’t push an agenda. A friend offers friendship without expecting anything in return. A friend knows that he or she can learn just as much from people of other faiths, as they can offer.

In preparing for the talk I talked to a couple of my friends of other faiths. I wanted to get their perspective on what raising a family in Utah is like. My devout Catholic friend said that when her children’s friends try to convert them, it shows a lack of respect for their Catholic faith, a faith that they love as dearly. She did however want to have her children included in non-religious activities whenever possible. My other good Christian friend pointed out that because I am LDS I have a support system built in, and she has to get her support system elsewhere. She said that no matter where I move to, I will have an immediate group. This same friend mentioned how much she and her husband appreciated President Hinckley, how they felt he’d been good to teach tolerance and they respected him greatly for it. She expressed sorrow at his death, and hoped that President Monson would be able to do the same.

Going back to my own experience as a child, we should realize how intimidating it is to attend a church that you aren’t used to, how exclusive we Mormons are with our daily language and conversation. Pay attention to how often a group of Mormons, even when there is someone who isn’t of our faith in the group, talks about things that revolve around, missions, callings, temples, mutual, wards, stakes, bishops, and so on and so on. Being respectful may mean toning conversation to include everyone in the group.

Some of our LDS youth are under the impression that they are only supposed to date members of the church. How unfair for those ten percent who aren’t in the LDS faith when the prom comes along. We need to teach what “The Strength of Youth” pamphlet really says. “Date only those who have high standards and in whose company you can maintain your standards. A young man and a young woman on a date are responsible to help each other maintain their standards and to protect each other’s honor and virtue.” Using this standard may exclude some LDS members, and include many who aren’t LDS. If our youth follow dating guidelines to date in groups until after their missions, then there is no reason to not include non-LDS friends in their group dynamic.

In our small mostly LDS community, I am blessed to have numerous friends representing a variety of religious traditions: Reformed Jewish, Baptist, Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, LDS active, less-active LDS, generic Christian, and Agnostic. My friends enrich my life and teach me. I have conversations with my friends on a variety of topics, including spirituality, faith and religion. Recently during a trial of faith, a period where my own personal belief was challenged by the teachings of my church, I received strength from an unlikely source. One of my friends from another faith encouraged me to “not throw the baby out with the bath water.” That reminder helped me to get through. Since my friends know I respect their traditions, true camaraderie and genuine friendship is possible. Nothing other than friendship is offered and nothing other than friendship is expected. Today I’m grateful for friends.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

When the Shelf Comes Crashing Down

Sister Camilla Kimball once said “I’ve always had an inquiring mind. I’m not satisfied just to accept things. I like to follow through and study things out. I learned early to put aside those gospel questions that I couldn’t answer. I had a shelf of things I didn’t understand, but as I’ve grown older and studied and prayed and thought about each problem, one by one I’ve been able to better understand them. I still have some questions on that shelf, but I’ve come to understand so many other things in my life that I’m willing to bide my time for the rest of the answers.” (Ensign October 1975 “Camilla Kimball: Lady of Constant Learning”
I too can’t just accept things. I liked the idea of a shelf where I could put my problems and questions about the Church. I envisioned a shelf full of food storage and canned goods, and I started piling up my issues–stuff that I didn’t understand. Polygamy—that’s a big one—about a fifty-pound bag of flour. Next, the priesthood ban for black men—another big bag of flour. Already my shelf was starting to sag pretty heavily in the middle, but I was doing okay. I could move forward. I had a testimony. In spite of what people say about a never-changing church, I was more than okay with the church changing. Nothing is perfect in the early fledgling years—so I told myself. We are better now. Polygamy has publicly been labeled a “blip.” That “blip” has caused considerable heartbreak, abuse, and misunderstanding—many are still being victimized. Look at Texas. But I could keep that on the shelf. I was okay.
As far as the priesthood barrier being lifted in 1978, well I witnessed that one first hand. If I’d been home in Utah at the time—I would’ve seen very little change in my overly white community. However, in June of that year, I was traveling through Europe. I was scrubbing my jeans in the sink of a cheap hotel in Germany while my friend, Rosanna fiddled with a radio and picked up an American station. “Carole,” she shouted. “Come quick.” She told me what the announcer said, but I couldn’t believe she’d heard correctly until the announcer repeated the news, quoting an official spokesperson for the LDS Church. We cried and ran down the stairs to rejoice with other less-enthused members of our Utah group. The next week we went to church in Hyde Park, London, where black men blessed and passed the sacrament for the first time in their lives. I heard numerous members, both black and white, bear testimonies with tears streaming down their faces, that the day had finally arrived, the day they knew would come. It was a wonderful day. Where was my faith? Is the question still on the shelf?—Yes, but the bag became a lighter.
In the thirty years since then, I’ve added lots of cans to my shelf, some little cans, tomato sauce size and others much bigger. I’ve rearranged the shelf a few times, checked expiration dates--moved stuff to the back—out of the way so I wouldn’t have to face it. No matter what though, eventually I dig through the cans and pull them out to examine them one at a time. Sometimes my understanding allows me to discard a can, and other times I can change the label, but usually I just rearrange the shelf and move forward.
About ten years ago the shelf broke. The cans rolled to the floor in a heap and I couldn’t put them back on. It was a sad day for me. I wanted to leave the church. I no longer believed that it was true. Which can broke the shelf? It might have been the historical issues. It might have been the lack of equal rights for women. It might have been all the cultural stuff that gets mixed into doctrine and distorts the teachings of Jesus and His simple gospel. It might have been overwhelming depression and a mid-life crisis. The cloud became too fuzzy and I couldn’t see a clear way to worship God. No matter what all I wanted to do when that moment came was to run. So what did I do?
I didn’t run. I asked to be released from my calling from the Primary presidency. When I told the bishop what I was feeling, he offered a priesthood blessing. I gratefully accepted. It’s ironical to me now. I allowed a blessing from a man whom I’d just confessed a lack of testimony, to lay his hands on my head, using a power that I had questioned. But for some reason it felt right. Now I know that even then I held fast to some very basic things about the gospel. I knew I believed in God. I knew I believed in Jesus. I knew I believed in prayer. I’d seen the priesthood work miracles both large and small. Those parts were a good fit.
When I left the office, I felt clear in my mind and much of the anger I’d been carrying around dissipated; my shelf was reinforced. I went back to school. I got the help I needed for depression. I still went to Church.
I’ve been blessed with two wonderful children, and a kind and thoughtful husband. For a while, my family was the only reason I attended Church. My responsibility as a mother and wife overcame my own anxiety. When I was able to feel spiritual strength again, I accepted callings. Eventually a little at a time, I have come to a reality. Faith is a choice. And I choose the Mormon faith. I need the Church. It’s a big part of who I am. The values I was taught as a child are the values I keep and the values I’ve passed onto our children. I see the world through a prism of lenses, the biggest of those lenses being Mormonism. These are my people. This is my faith. Sometimes in choosing the good part, you lug along some baggage to carry with you too.
I want to point out that I do not judge people who for whatever reason decide to leave the church. For me it wouldn’t work. I choose to stay. What I did was to stop expecting the Church in this imperfect world to be perfect, to have all the answers and to fix me. While some would criticize this approach, I’ve learned to pick and choose what I’ll cling to. Most of what I choose to discard is cultural stuff, but there are still the historical issues I deal with. I find that nearly every week after church, I find it necessary to ignore a few things: like the strong encouragement for clean-shaven men, white shirts and ties, and even lately telling women to wear nylons to church and which type of sandal God apparently prefers that we wear. I choose to ignore insinuations that we should be Republican—I am not. One of my biggest disappointments is when other churches are bad-mouthed by teachers and members who should know better. That isn’t what we’re about, is it?
At church when I hear something that ruffles my feathers, I can usually recognize that it’s not the gospel, but rather a misapplication. If I chose not to attend because of these things, I would miss out on the gems that give me something to smile about or bring tears to my eyes and makes me feel joy. Not long ago, a beautiful eleven-year-old girl bore her sweet and sincere testimony, “I’m grateful that my mom got to come home.” I watched the girl go back and sit with her mother near the front of the chapel. Her mother put her arm around her, pulled her close, and gave her a squeeze. Where’s her mother been? Prison. And now she’s back, and coming to church. Isn’t this what the gospel of Jesus Christ should be about? Acceptance, love, and taking steps toward God. I loved Elder Wirthlin’s words. “The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has his own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole.” (Joseph B. Wirthlen April Conference 2008) If only we could believe it, and embrace all who choose to enter. I’ve found that lots of Church members have shelves. Some only have an item or two on them, and others, like mine, are pretty full, but I like to believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has room for someone like me.