Poop Happens

poopThis past week we took the youth of our stake on a three-day trek in New Hampshire, complete with handcarts and pioneer garb.  Our first day out was a near disaster. It poured rain and there were severe thunderstorms. We pushed back the bus schedule, switched activities around, had teams go set up tarps, and tried to salvage the day. It was a giant pain but unsuspected blessings ensued. In the end we agreed we gained more than we lost. Which got me thinking about how we react when stuff hits the fan. Because I’d been called as “Trail Boss,” I had the chance to share a few devotionals.  Here is a version of one the kids are calling the “Poop Testimony.”

As a mom of four kids, two birds, and one cat, I want to talk to you about something with which I am intimately acquainted: poop. The truth is life is going to give us lots of experiences that are foul, unpleasant, messy. Yes, poop happens. Today I will share three stories that show that each of us has the power to take these experiences and transform them into something wonderful.

First, my grandpa Oscar. He was a great man and a hard worker who married a nasty woman after my grandma died. And she had a nasty son. Oscar had horses, and one day he and this stepson were shoveling manure, some of which was spread over the gardens. Jay turned to my 70 year old Grandpa and said, “When I’m an old man, I promise you I won’t still be shoveling sh*t .” To which my Grandpa said, “You know, I HOPE I’m still shoveling sh*t at 80, and at 90. Wouldn’t that be something!”

Story number two. I was recently in Botswana and we visited a cultural center that featured traditional villages. We approached a beautiful hut with a golden colored entry whose floors were smooth and lovely. A middle-aged woman was on her hands and knees spreading a rich dark substance around on the surfaces of the floor and walls. We were informed it was cattle dung. It helps to insulate the walls, repel mosquitoes, and keep snakes away. Holy crap, that’s awesome, I thought.

Three: my favorite pioneer story is of my great something grandpa George Burnham. When he and his older brother Wallace were eight and ten, their widowed mother sent them west from Nauvoo in the company of a man named Wood. They walked the entire way with a single set of clothes. At the rivers and streams they grabbed the tails of the oxen and hung on for dear life. They earned their keep by herding the livestock and collecting buffalo chips to cook their meager meals on each night. Once they reached the Valley, Mr. Wood said goodbye and they were on their own. It was 5 years before their mother & sisters would join them.

What do these three stories have in common, excrement aside? You may think this is a life gives you lemons speech, which it sort of is. But lets face it. Even in their non-sugar enhanced state, lemons are beautiful, fragrant, and useful. Maybe a little sour but still pretty great. Poop? Not so much. But I believe if we are determined, we can always find ways to take the turds life throws at us, and find opportunities for transformation and growth. My Grandpa not only used manure as fertilizer for his garden, he also saw his ability to shovel it as a sign of good health. For him, work was a blessing not a curse. In Botswana the people found ways to take what is abundant and make it a valuable resource to beautify and protect their homes. And for my pioneer ancestors, it meant fuel and ultimately food. The Savior is the best example of transforming one thing into another: water into wine; temptation into triumph, maladies into miracles. Through His atonement we can turn our sins and pain into wisdom. Through His grace we can turn thunderstorms into opportunities for adaptation. We cannot choose what we are given, but we can choose what we do with it. I know that as we turn our hearts to Christ we will be given the insight and strength to make all things work for our good.  


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Personal Revelation in an Authoritarian Church: Balance of Power or Détente?


If you have gotten your 40th Anniversary copy of Exponent II, then you know that many past editors were asked to choose their favorite essay from their tenure at the magazine. The essay I have most often shared from my decade of as associate editor is the following piece by a wise woman and dear friend that taught me that “Contention comes not from having different ideas of what is right, but from the effort to prove another person wrong.” 

By E. Victoria Grover first published in The Exponent in Fall 2000

Sooner or later, almost every Latter-day Saint experiences conflict within the framework of his or her religious community. That conflict is particularly challenging when it seems to involve differing interpretations of the will of the Lord. In a religious environment that places great value on both personal revelation and obedience to authority, what are we to do when these two principles clash?

The Church has clear structural and ideological answers to these conflicts when they occur: Either the hierarchy of authority or the principle of stewardship tells us which interpretation will prevail.

But what do we do as individuals when we feel the promptings of the spirit get overruled? When we seem to find ourselves ill-used by someone else’s decision or perhaps even believe we are victims of the injustice within the Church? Whether it’s a matter of how Church welfare resources will be distributed or where new ward boundaries will be drawn, hundreds of decisions are made by those in authority with which we may deeply disagree. How do we deal with this when it happens? What is there for us to learn from these experiences, and where are the dangers? Finally, what is unique about the Mormon view of the dispersement of spiritual power and how can the implicit tension it creates enlighten us as individuals and as a larger community of wards and stakes in Zion?

About ten years ago, I had an interaction with a new bishop that changed the course of my spiritual life forever. In that short meeting, it became rapidly clear that he and I had very different views on fundamental principles of commitment and obligation. Over the next week, I struggled with a flood of feelings surrounding the bishop’s decision and the implications it held for me and my children. I prayed for understanding, and when it didn’t come, I prayed for relief. I felt a pressing weight of confusion, despair, and helplessness each time I thought about the difference between my conception of what was right and the bishop’s and how his decision was now going to affect my life. I felt my anger slice like a hot blade through the very cords that bound me to the ward and to the whole Church. For the first time in my adult life, I could envision the Church going forward without me in it.

I can’t remember at what point during that week I finally received an answer, but I recall the answer very clearly. Alone in my bedroom as I wept and poured out my story of injustice to the Lord yet one more time, I suddenly felt a piercing affirmation coming out of a place of emotional stillness that was not part of me, telling me very simply, “You are right.” Motionless, I listened for the rest of what I wanted to hear—the part about how the bishop was wrong and the wrath of a righteous God would soon fall on him like a thunderbolt! But that message never came. Instead, the Holy Ghost poured love out on me, and in those wonderful minutes of spiritual clarity the absence of any accusation against my bishop spoke volumes. The bishop, right or wrong, was not my concern. Instead, I saw the task of enlarging my heart and strengthening my soul lying before me, and with the assurance of God’s love and the blessings of free agency won for me by Mother Eve, I knew I had all that I needed to move on.

When our ideas or opinions are overruled by others, the first and most natural reaction is to contend with those others on behalf of our heartfelt beliefs. But contention is extremely dangerous because it hardens our hearts and drives away the Holy Ghost. It is possible for people to hold different views of what is right without succumbing to contention. People can state their views, explain them, even point out possible flaws in another person’s thinking, without invoking the spirit of contention.

One way to do this is to clarify in your own mind the purpose of the explanation in light of unconditional respect for the free agency of the person with whom you are speaking. If the purpose of your explanation is tainted by a desire to overcome the other person with your words—to convince, to control, to win–you move into dangerous territory. If, while you are speaking, you feel your respect for the other’s free agency draining out of you, watch for contempt to replace respect and any remnant of charity to disappear. You are now contending, and the purpose of your discussion has changed from explanation of defiance, from enlightenment to domination.

Contention comes not from having different ideas of what is right, but from the effort to prove another person wrong.

For all our talk about tolerance and diversity, contention as a way of sorting out our differences is both honored and glorified in America’s culture. The world often asks us to fit people and their disagreements into the dichotomous arrangement of “right and wrong.” While there certainly are important laws and principles that fit that arrangement—and knowing that we must guard against the danger of trying to rationalize away our very real sins—still, the rule of “right and wrong” serves us poorly in most disagreements with others. Even so, it is what we naturally fall back on whenever conflict occurs. As we start to fall, we grab onto contention to prop us up and support our need to be seen as “the right one” in a dispute. Even when we try to acknowledge valid issues on both sides of an argument, the very fact that we have taken sides push us us into the “us/them” duality and its corollary, which says, “they” are wrong and need to be stopped—or changed—by “we” who are right.

Christ asks his disciples to see conflict with different eyes—with out spiritual eyes—and get off the see-saw that says, “If I’m up you must be down!” he wants us to look at our brothers and sisters as a part of ourselves and realize that contending with them is as foolish as the foot contending with the hand on the same body. I believe Christ would agree with the comic strip philosopher Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

The Church asks us to gather ourselves together in communities of many different people. Different is difficult and this gathering into communities has created challenges since Joseph Smith first restored the Gospel. The challenge is intensified by our belief in individual personal revelation. It is disciplined by asking our obedience to hierarchical authority. The tension between personal revelation and authority keeps us each vibrantly humming and engaged in both the workings of the Church and the pursuit of our own salvation. I believe the latter task is the more important one for each of us, from President Hinckley on down, and the Church organization serves us best when we keep that fact in mind. Then we realize that it doesn’t really matter whose idea gets acted on in the day-to-day business of running the ward, the stake, or the Church itself.

What is important is how each of us uses the Church community to refine our souls, to come unto Christ, to make our selves perfect and complete. When we come before him, Jesus will not ask us if we won in our disputes with others or even if we were on the right side. Instead, he will ask if we won our struggle against the natural man, the desire to control, the need to be essential, to feel powerful, to be right instead of righteous. If we are called upon to sacrifice on the alter of God our most tender and delicate parts—a piece of our ego—then truly in that act we become one with or Savior.

The philosopher/psychiatrist Sheldon Knopp said that all the significant battles are waged within the self. These are the only battles Christ is truly interested in.

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Exponent II: A Journey of Discovery

Fall Winter 2015 coverExciting news! The double issue for Fall 2014 and Winter 2015 is in production and will be mailed on April 30th. You don’t want to miss this 68-page celebration of Exponent II’s 40 years in publication with writings from so many beloved Mormon feminists like Gina Colvin and Lavina Fielding Anderson (not to mention the ones listed on the cover)!

Our Letter from the Editor comes from former assistant editor and Exponent permablogger, Heather Sundahl. Heather is entering her 20th year of Exponent II involvement, and there’s no one better to introduce this issue, the last piece of our 40th anniversary celebration.

Whenever people talk about Exponent II’s origin story, the word “discover” is always used. In 1972 Susan Kohler “discovered” a stack of original Woman’s Exponents published a century earlier whose purpose was to advocate for “the Rights of the Women of Zion, and the Rights of the Women of all Nations.” And as you can read in the retrospective essays of Claudia Bushman, Laurel Ulrich and Judy Dushku, within two years of that unearthing a brave group of women in Cambridge would decide that the time was right to start anew.

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Go Aggies!


This is a story about my son. And my dad. And me. And how sometimes death is not the end of a relationship.

Last year, when my oldest was in 11th grade, I started to have panic attacks about college. I never thought I’d have to deal with this. My husband and I both attended BYU, and while we didn’t love it, it was affordable and academically I’ve always maintained you can get wherever you want from BYU. So I just assumed my kids would do the same. But I hadn’t factored in a kid who a) did not want to attend a Church school; and b) didn’t attend seminary regularly. And let’s be clear; our budget could not stretch to cover all these lovely little liberal arts colleges around here. Plus I did not want him taking on great debt. Which left me thinking Jonah would end up at a UMass. The schools are fine, but are no bargain. I did the math and realized once we covered tuition, he’d need to live at home.  I love Massachusetts but it is cruelly expensive. None of these things are the end of the world and I know worrying about college is a privilege. But I also know these decisions can alter our lives. I felt depressed and desperate and greedy for options.  Lots of praying ensued.

I called my sister Angela to talk about all this stuff and she joked, “Too bad Dad’s not around to write a letter for you.” I’d forgotten about my very thrifty father’s proclivity for writing letters to save money. When Lee, my oldest brother, applied and got into grad school at UCLA, he was denied instate tuition because he’d gone off to BYU and served a mission so they said he had lost his California residency. The difference between in and out of state tuition was huge and my dad was having none of it. So Dad typed up a forceful missive about why his son was still a CA resident and got Lee his cheap tuition. Next up: Danny, kid number 2, applies to med schools all over the US. He gets into several but is not even granted an interview at UCLA. My dad is outraged. Out of state tuition is a killer and who is UCLA to say no to his Danny? So once again, Dad breaks out the Smith Corona and outlines for UCLA their mistake. UCLA begrudgingly granted Danny an interview…and loved him. A week later he was accepted with a scholarship. Next came Angela who got a medium award to BYU. My dad was convinced that if BYU took SAT scores instead of just the ACT, her scholarship would have been more. So he said as much to President Holland in a forceful letter. Elder Holland politely denied his request. But by golly Dad tried! And then there’s me. I was never up for anything that required a letter. My dad was so happy I just got in to BYU that he didn’t even care that we had to pay full price. If anything, it was my fault, and not BYU’s, that nothing was special enough about me to merit a discount.

The last weekend in January 2014 I was at my friend’s house in the Berkshires with a group of really smart, interesting women. During a conversation about college with my new friend Julia, she mentioned something about one of her kids considering Utah State University.  “But out of state tuition is a bummer,” I said. She replied that USU has a special deal where kids of their alumni can get instate tuition. “That’s wonderful,” I said. “I wish it extended to grandkids since my dad was an Aggie.” She told me that come to think of it, due to the lowering of the missionary age, she’d heard that USU might have extended the tuition break to grandkids of graduates to keep their numbers up. As she spoke these words a door opened in my mind. My dad went to USU. Tuition would be affordable. It’s strong in science and engineering, which Jonah wants to study. Logan is a great college town. We have lots of family in Utah to be a safety net.  Jonah could leave home but not take on massive debt. And religiously it’s neutral. If he wanted to attend church, awesome; but nobody would stalk him if he didn’t.

The following Monday I called USU and asked if it was true, that grandkids of graduates could get instate tuition. Yes, the woman said. It’s called the Legacy Scholarship. That night I told Jonah about it all and he also seemed relieved—and excited. He immediately started googling and tells me about “genetically-modified goats that produce milk containing the spider silk proteins that can be used in their research on synthetic material for artificial ligaments.” So nerdy and so cool.

I called Angela that night and told her that dad had come through for me on the college front. She laughed and said, “Hon, you finally got your letter—from the grave.”   I teared up a bit as I thought about that, and how I just assumed that relationships have a hard stop in death. My relationship with my father was always strained. We were incapable of giving the other what the other needed: I yearned for acceptance and engagement; he expected excellence and conformity. Since his passing seven years ago, I have felt his love in ways I never did when he was alive. And since my grandmother passed last summer, I often dream of her and awake feeling like I’ve just spent the afternoon with my best friend. For Christmas I bought myself a copy of Brian Kershisnik’s “She Will Find What is Lost.” When I first saw it, I was speechless. It captures what I know has happened to me. I have been buoyed up by loving people I cannot see. I just never realized my dad was among them. I now accept that those on the other side are indeed present with us, rooting for us, and occasionally, writing letters for us.  We can find what was lost.

Jonah was accepted to USU and starts this fall.

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Tattoos and Ghost Stories


A few months ago a dear friend asked me if I had anything I’d want to contribute for a collection of essays on Primary that would be both real and uplifting. I recalled a funny and sweet memory of one daughter as a Sunbeam and submitted it. Another friend of ours, Bret Wunderli, also submitted a piece. Both were gladly accepted by the compiler. However, the publisher, whose distributor is Desert Book, found our submission troubling and chose to omit them stating: “With Deseret Book distributing this book, we can’t include anything that hints at questioning Church doctrines. Even if it’s subtle.” This disturbed me. Not because my story wouldn’t be included, but because of the climate of fear that is trickling down from above. There is just so much fear. And it is escalating.  Nobody’s mad about the editorial decision, just really sad when something you intended to be bright and insightful is seen as insidious. So brace yourselves for our expurgated stories:


My husband’s family is very loving, very supportive, and very colorful. Literally. Seven of the ten kids have at least one tattoo.  And not just initials, or some Chinese symbol that is supposed to say “serenity” but actually says “brussels sprout.” They wear tattoos of bulldogs and Spanish skylines, Maori symbolism, and even the Little Mermaid. My kids adore these aunts and uncles and get fairly defensive when Primary lessons lump body art into the list of “no no’s” or signs of apostasy.

When Georgia was a Sunbeam, her sweet teacher taught a lesson on bodies being temples. When she got to the part about tattoos being Bad, Georgia jumped up from her chair and let loose that her family had lots of tattoos and they were good and pretty and in fact God LOVED tattoos and temples had art so why not bodies—so there! Her kind teacher quietly directed these 3 and 4 year olds to draw pictures for the rest of the lesson.

After church, this teacher found my husband and me and told us the story. She handed me the picture Georgia had drawn. It was a very simple sketch of a man in robes, beard, long hair. Clearly it was Jesus…with a large red tattoo on his forehead of a heart. I looked up to see how this teacher was responding. She had a huge smile on her face and told me she loved Georgia because she was so passionate and truly understood that the Lord loves us all.  I hugged her and was so thankful for a teacher who can teach the party line but did not need to shut down the opposition. 

“Why aren’t there any women in the Godhead?”

By Bret Wunderli

Several years ago, my wife and I taught the oldest teenagers in Sunday School. We had prepared a lesson on something else, but when it became clear that the students were unclear about the Godhead, we scrapped our lesson and taught them about the Godhead. (It should be noted that these young men and women were smart; the fault, we’ve always assumed, was in the teaching they’d received. That is, their teachers had always assumed that they understood the Church’s teachings regarding the Godhead. That was our hypothesis, anyway.)

Some years later, I found myself teaching the oldest Primary children. To say these boys and girls were bright doesn’t do them justice. Remembering our experience in Sunday School, I decided to teach them the clearest, best lesson about the Godhead that I could manage when the topic came up in the manual.

At some point in the lesson, Victoria raised her hand. Her question was priceless. She said, “Why aren’t there any women in the Godhead?” Slight pause. Then, with a puzzled face and a tilted head, she added, “I mean, there’s a ghost in there after all.” That class was not only full of smart kids; they were also kind. They respected each other. So when I tell you that everyone (including the teacher) laughed, it’s important to understand that we were laughing at Victoria’s wit and not at her. Victoria was glowing.

Here’s my answer to her that day: “Victoria, there are many people in the Church who will give you many different answers to that question. Here’s the real deal. We just don’t know why there aren’t any women in the Godhead.”

And there you have it.


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