Holding on to something–Faith after the Endowment

Leaning Against the Wind by J. Kirk Richards

Leaning Against the Wind by J. Kirk Richards

My youth was spent envisioning the day that I would enter the Temple and understand the mysteries of Godliness. I had always been deeply interested in theology, philosophy and concerned with spirituality and standing with God. I saw the garments my mother, and later my roommates, wore and wanted more than anything to have that constant, visual reminder of my covenants with God. I looked forward to that feeling of absolute closeness and connection to the Divine. I desired to make binding covenants that brought me even closer to my God and my Saviour.

I love to see the temple,
I’ll go inside someday,
To feel the Holy Spirit
To listen and to pray.
For the temple is a house of God,
A place of love and beauty.
I’ll prepare myself while I am young,
This is my sacred duty.

I felt sufficiently prepared. I had studied the scriptures. I had developed a close and personal relationship with God. Because I was a scrupulous person, I always questioned my worthiness but I knew that I lived in accordance to the teachings of the Church and was actively striving to live the commandments and do what the Lord would have me do.

Nervous and excited at what was about to transpire, I found the Initiatory to be beautiful and meaningful. I wept as women placed their hands on my head, pronounced me clean and proclaimed blessings upon me. I was stunned by the peace and beauty I felt.

And then came the Endowment.

All of my experiences in the temple to this point had been liberating and felt to open my communion with God. Through baptisms, I was reminded that I had also been made clean through the waters of my own baptism. Confirmations reminded me that I also had been given the gift of the Holy Spirit to be my constant companion. Through the Initiatory, I was blessed and again pronounced clean. But the Endowment was different. It was not liberating, it was restrictive. It was not peaceful, it was puzzling. It put processes and passwords between me and God. Suddenly, I was terrified that I might accidentally say words and names and betray covenants of non-disclosure. Suddenly, I needed to remember signs and tokens to approach my God. Suddenly, my husband was pronounced as my god. Suddenly, the God of the universe no longer accepted me for my faith and my desire to do good in the world but required exclusive information and hand signs to approach Him.

It took everything in me to keep from running away–running back to the world where God was loving and knowable, kind and understanding, forgiving and approachable. But I stayed, because that is what good Mormon girls do and I wanted to be a good Mormon girl.

I had always been told that the Temple would be the great place of communion and peace but that was not the temple I visited on that June day. This temple brought questions, doubts and concerns. Because I had always been promised this amazing experience of communion and love, but instead was confronted with distance and strangeness, I left the temple concluding that either 1) my faith that felt so strong before was severely lacking or 2) there must be no God. It had never occurred to me that perhaps God was not restricted to Mormon temples or that perhaps this wasn’t the way that I would reach greatest communion with the Divine. It never occurred to me that there was an overwhelming number of people in my faith community who felt the same way but “got used to it.”

And still, I tried. I begged God to be with me, to help me to have faith. For the first year after receiving my Endowment, I attended the temple faithfully. I tried to go at least once a week, concluding that perhaps my uneasiness was due to the fact that the ceremony was unfamiliar and I needed more time to understand it. I could sometimes muster a glimmer of peace but soon after felt anxious and once again, alone in my struggles.

And then, there was light.

I had been assigned in one of my graduate seminars to do a close study of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion to find how he had used music to capture (Lutheran) Christian theology. The task was daunting and I was ready for boredom and confusion. But from the first musical cry for “Herr! Herr! Unser Herrcher!” (Lord! Lord! Our Ruler!”), I was transfixed.

Swept away in the beauty of cross motives and closed disonances that only resolved at the declaration of atonement, I felt it again for the first time in the year since I entered the temple–that overwhelming feeling of warmth, peace, gratitude, and immense love. As I looked up from the score between my broken German translation and cantata choruses, I saw hummingbirds flitting from bright flower to bright flower. The hot August heat was inviting rather than bothersome. Suddenly, everything in the world was vibrantly alive and yet still. The tears flowed as I thanked the heavens for this moment. I had been searching for God and could not find Him in the places I had always been told I would. Instead, God found me, right where I was, and helped me to find rest. There were no signs or tokens, no clothing or covenants–just indescribable love and peace.

I remain fairly agnostic on temple rites. I don’t pretend to know whether or they’re inspired of God, man or the devil. In fact, there are few things that I claim any form of certainty these days. But I do know that day of peace and I hold on to it as the moment God taught me just to rest – in love, grace, peace — and put aside my need to understand those things that distance me from it. And also, listen to more Bach.

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A People to Love

The Sunday my oldest child was blessed, I stood up in our ward’s fast and testimony meeting and gave my own blessing of sorts to this little boy who had come barreling into the world. In that blessing I quoted the first part of the Prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

By any measure, my George is a quirky little boy–prone to anxiety and rigidity of thinking. But I also have never seen a boy his age take so much interest in the people around him. He remembers intricate details and facts about the people he comes into contact with, even those he is only tangentially connected to. When I gave him that blessing all those years ago, I had visions of him being a lone warrior for justice and love. And, indeed, that is a romantic notion but one that as I have grown over the years, I have come to understand is really besides the point. Especially for George.

George is eight now and last month he was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I know for many people this rite of passage can be complicated, but knowing my little boy as I do, I am profoundly grateful that, if he chooses, he will have a community that will surround him and embrace him. As I sat there watching my little boy take this step, I thought about the community he was joining. I had been struggling that week to balance George’s birthday, our extended family who were in town and the baptism. During the times I felt I was dropping all of the pieces I was supposed to juggle, people from our ward would call or stop by and ask what they could do to help. From picking up white underwear for George to be baptized in to talking me off the ledge of quitting my job because the pressure was too much, these members of my community were there to support me in my hour of need.

I was given the opportunity to conduct the service which, I must note, I was only allowed to do because of the benevolence of my husband who serves as bishop. As I was closing the baptism I felt the overwhelming need to tell George this story. To tell him of all the people who loved him and our family so much that they lifted us over the gaps that we couldn’t navigate. I told him of my blessing for him as a baby–that I hoped he would be an instrument of God’s love. And then I read him the second half of St. Francis’ prayer:

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

I had never noticed before how close it is to our own baptismal covenant where we promise to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort. George now gets to be a part of this community where he will seek to console, to be understood and to love. And hopefully those same virtues will be rewarded to him when he needs it. Being a member of this community is complicated, especially for those of us who don’t entirely fit. But on that day and because of my boy whose soul craves human connection, I was reminded how wonderful it is to have a people to love.

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Relief Society Lesson 6: Jesus Christ, Our Savior and Redeemer

Jesus-Picture-Christ-Teaching-Samarian-Woman-At-The-WellI think this lesson is more challenging than it looks at first glance. The life, death, and resurrection of the Savior is the foundation of the gospel and is very dear to us in individually. Because it’s both foundational and personal I think it could be challenging to teach a lesson that is meaningful for each member of the class. As teachers we risk repeating obvious platitudes or leading the discussion into topics that only a subset of the class can relate to. This is also the risk of a manual that uses quotations from only one person. Even though that person is a prophet, his voice will resonate with some people more than with others.

What is your goal as you prepare this lesson? What do you want the women in your Relief Society class to experience in your precious 40 minutes with them? Here are a few possible goals I can think of, no doubt there are many others.

  • Feeling the love Jesus Christ has for them
  • Increased faith in the reality of Jesus Christ (Sections 2 and 3 in the lesson)
  • Feeling hope in the resurrection and being reunited with loved ones who have died (Section 1 in the lesson)
  • Feeling hope in the possibility of personal change through the atonement (Section 1 in the lesson)
  • Increased gratitude for the gift of the atonement
  • A new insight into what it looks like to rely on the Savior (Section 4 in the lesson)
  • Increased knowledge/awareness of how Ezra Taft Benson testified of the Savior (lesson introduction)
  • Increased desire to share our testimony of Jesus with friends and loved ones (Section 3 in the lesson)
  • Refreshed our thoughts on what it means to “be like Jesus.” (Section 5 in the lesson)

Depending on the what you decide to focus on, I suggest using a few quotes from the manual that are relevant to your topic, then supplementing that with additional voices and stories on that topic. Here are some suggestions:

  • Read a favorite story from the life of Jesus and explain why it’s meaningful to you
  • Carefully choose hymns that teach about the aspect of the lesson you’d most like to emphasize
  • Ahead of time, ask women from the class to prepare thoughts on a personal experience with the atonement that they will share with the class; give other class members the same opportunity
  • Recall stories from family history, church history, scripture, or literature that illustrate the points you would like to make.
  • Share New Testament stories in which Jesus interacted with women

It’s impossible to tell what will speak to each woman in the class, and impossible to say something meaningful to each one individually. But every woman is coming to Relief Society with something weighing on her heart, and each one needs the Savior’s love. Stories have the power to teach and lift in ways that feel miraculously personal because each person brings her own experiences to the story. I think this is why Jesus taught in parables, and I think a lesson on Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer, begs that we re-tell the “stories of Jesus, things that he would tell… if he were here.”

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Wind Chime of the Feminine Divine

IMG_0132By Jenny

At the end of last summer, my husband bought a wind chime on clearance.  I love it.  I love the beautiful sound it makes as the wind travels through it.  One afternoon just after we hung it over our deck, my kids and I were sitting at the table eating lunch.  A gentle breeze swayed the wind chime to chant an unfamiliar melody.  Instantly, my kids were standing on their chairs yelling, “Ice cream truck!  Ice cream truck!”  I have to admit that I laughed at their ignorant reaction.  Their ears were not yet accustomed to the wind chime, so they associated its sound with something more familiar to them.

But I was humbled later in the afternoon when I heard the wind chime’s tune and walked into the kitchen to see who had left the refrigerator door open.  No, it was not the familiar warning that the fridge had been left open.  Through all of this, I started thinking about how our ears become accustomed to certain sounds and it feels safe to have those familiar sounds around us.  But if a new sound arises, it feels unsettling.  Like Pavlov’s dogs, it is an automatic reaction to grab your phone as soon as you hear the familiar tone. But the first time your phone rings after you have changed your ring tone, you are the last to realize that it is your phone.

One familiar sound for me has been the preference for male pronouns at church.  It sounds natural to say, “brethren and sisters,” “male and female,” “sons of man,” “all mankind,” etc.  The scriptures were written by men, interpreted by men, and most of the main characters are men.  Even our male God, who has just enough doctrinal room for female pronouns, is always referred to as “He,” “Heavenly Father,” “the Lord.”

My ears were so accustomed to these male pronouns that it was as if they didn’t exist at all.  I went to church, I heard the familiar comfortable language that I had been conditioned from infancy to hear, and I acted like a Pavlovian dog, eating up the message right on cue.  When I started hearing new sounds that came from a mother language, it was unsettling and a bit confusing, much like my new wind chime.  I started hearing about the “divine feminine,” “Sophia,” “Heavenly Mother,” She, She, She…I started thinking about They, God the Mother and the Father.  What a beautiful and powerful melody!

It was hard not to retain my natural inclination to the familiar sounds of my youth.  But with practice, the words began to flow naturally from my mouth.  Now I can say, “sisters and brothers,” without cringing.  “Female and male” no longer sounds backward in its order.  Most importantly, “Heavenly Parents” is the title that naturally comes out of my mouth without faltering over “Heavenly Fa-.”  Now when other people use male only titles or pronouns, it sounds like a cacophony to my ears.  But when I hear the familiar language of a feminist awakening, I have a natural reaction to it.  When someone says, “Heavenly Parents,” I am naturally inclined toward them.

So I can understand why members of my ward were uncomfortable when the mother tongue came out in my sharing time lessons.  I can understand why it so unnerved my bishop and Stake President that they took immediate and painfully devastating actions against me.  Just as I thought the new chimes were only a warning on my fridge, they thought my new words were a warning for a slippery slope to apostasy.  I spoke of Heavenly Mother and they silenced me because the sounds unnerved them.  Instead of listening and trying to understand where the sound was coming from, instead of attuning their ears to the beautiful music of the divine feminine, they instantly smashed my new wind chime to the ground.

Jesus often said, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”  In Church I have always heard that those who have “ears to hear” are those who are spiritually attuned to hear and understand Christ’s messages.    I think the same principle applies here.  Knowing and understanding the beautiful and powerful messages of the divine feminine requires us to become spiritually attuned to it.  Because these are not sounds we are used to, it takes practice, patience, and understanding.  My hope is that the words which describe the spiritual experience of women will someday be welcome and even commonplace in our Church.  I hope that someday our youth will grow up being perfectly comfortable and familiar with the sounds made by the wind chime of the divine feminine.  I hope that our leaders, who have heard the same familiar tune for so long, will listen and try to understand, before they silence.  There is a beautiful new melody waiting to be heard by those who have “ears to hear.”

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“Take a compliment!”

That’s what the older gentleman called out to me as I was buying lunch at the beach. I had on a tank top and a maxi skirt. That’s all it took to warrant him shouting out to me in public, “You got a nice shape, baby!” For the first few seconds after, I felt so uncomfortable. It was one thing for a close friend or family member to say that I look good; it’s another to hear it from a random stranger in a loud populated area, for all to hear. Deciding to not let him get away with such callous behavior, I confidently shouted back at him, “Go away!”

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This Ain’t Your Grandma’s Postum

Postum adFive years ago, I was pregnant with my last child, enduring the heartburn that always came with my pregnancies. With a little baking soda, some medication and the swearing off of Diet Coke during my pregnancies, I could manage the heartburn, and as soon as the baby came out, I was back on sweet, sweet Diet Coke (with lemon, if you please).

Except for after my last kid…the heartburn never went away. In fact, it got worse and eventually, I had to swear of Diet Coke forever.

As an adult who tries to watch her calories, all carbonated beverages were out as was fruit juice. And, as a Mormon, coffee and like 90% of tea was out.

Water gets kind of boring (and don’t go telling me about ways to “jazz it up” with a lime wedge).

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