Giving Up Magical Thinking

I learned to pray from my parents, not that I remember it. I don’t remember my first prayer any more than I remember my first word. I assume I learned to pray the same way I learned to speak – by listening and imitating. My parents no doubt instructed me to repeat their words, showed me how to begin and end, and taught by example what goes between the bookends of a prayer. I learned to thank God for blessings and to ask for things I needed.

While I’ve always known the importance expressing gratitude in prayers, I’ve sometimes felt that thanking God was a preamble to the real business of prayer – asking for what I need. All my life I have given God lists of things I wanted and needed. I’ve prayed for myself and for people I love. Occasionally I’ve even prayed for my enemies. I’ve prayed for my kids, for employment, for health, and for a testimony. Sometimes those prayers were answered. Or rather, sometimes events unfolded in ways led me to attribute outcomes to God’s intervention. But I no longer believe I can ask for a specific outcome in prayer, and no longer attribute life events, good or bad, to God’s direct intervention in my life. If that sounds cynical, let me explain.

Some years ago I was a graduate student working on biology research that was not going anywhere. I’d started out with a promising research project, but after several years of working on it, useful results were not in sight. I felt frustrated, but I had faith. Faith that perseverance in the laboratory was going to pay off, and faith that God would help me with my work. So I kept at it for a few more years, but my research was still not giving me the results I needed to graduate. Seven years into my doctoral training I found myself an exhausted new mother who was commuting 40 miles round trip every day, facing tension in my marriage, running low on money, and getting very little support from my thesis adviser. I badly needed to be done with graduate school. So I wrote a letter requesting a master’s degree so that I could quit school but still receive a degree. My husband and thesis committee chair talked me out of quitting, however, so I resolved to finish the Ph.D. I felt I desperately needed God’s help to get it done.

I fasted and prayed that my research would produce results. I worked as hard as I could in the lab and believed that if my efforts weren’t enough, that God would make up the difference. I fully expected God to help me with some kind of miracle. But it never came. After an additional year of working in the lab, my project had failed. My thesis committee decided to let me graduate on the results of a backup project that was not impressive, but passable. My poor publication record and poor relationship with my adviser made it impossible for me to continue a career in science.

In the end I got the diploma, but it was a pyrrhic victory. My faith in God had not weathered the strain of finishing my Ph.D. at all well. God had not answered my prayers, which either meant that he didn’t exist or that my understanding of things was very wrong. I was familiar with the rationalization that God always answers prayers, it’s just that sometimes the answer is no, but this argument was cold comfort. It also seemed like a tautology. God can never fail us if silence and miracles are equal answers to prayer. During my worst moments, my feelings of abandonment caused me to doubt God’s existence. The idea that God doesn’t exist was too hopeless for me to accept for very long, however, so rather that giving up belief, my doubt became anger. I was angry with God for leaving me alone when I needed help – so angry that I quit praying for a while. I’m not proud of the fact that I gave God the silent treatment because it shows how petulant I can be, but my feelings of disappointment and loneliness were overwhelming, and I simply couldn’t see the point of praying at that time.

After some time I resumed praying, but I still had to grapple with the fact that God hadn’t answered my prayers. Perhaps it was self-centered to believe that they’d be answered. But my religious education had been replete with the idea that God answers prayers. What was wrong with my expectations about prayer?

With a little hindsight, I can see that I was indulging in magical thinking regarding my research. I believed I had a connection with God such that asking for what I needed would result in God intervening in the physical world. I fully expected that prayer would result in God taking action to intervene in my life, as if prayer were part of an equation: Prayer + Faith + Fasting = Desired Result, with God acting as the catalyst. I could not have been more wrong. God’s power is not a reagent I can take off the shelf and use at will.

Praying for God’s intervention is a risky endeavor. If you really believe God will intervene, it can devastate you when he doesn’t. All my life I had prayed for things I wanted and needed. Please bless me to get well, to drive home safely, to have a good day. And when I was praying for things of small importance, I didn’t pay too much attention to whether or not those prayers were answered. But in praying for something that really mattered, the lack of an answer was a real shock. My experience with unanswered prayers has made me wary of asking God for many things. Asking for something intangible like patience or inner peace feels safe and proper to me, but asking for God’s intervention in my physical world no longer does. Perhaps I am afraid I’ll be disappointed again; perhaps I simply lack faith. But I suspect that my faith is not the issue. Rather, lived experience tells me that wars will rage, children will die of cancer, criminals will go unpunished, graduate student research will go awry, and God will let it all happen in spite of our pleading for him to intervene.

For much of my life I’ve engaged in magical thinking; I believed that if I asked for something righteous in prayer, having faith that it would happen, my request would set metaphysical gears in motion and the divine vending machine would spit out an answer for me. And even after realizing the error in this kind of thinking, I still find myself believing that my thoughts and prayers may actually affect the world around me. Whether it is habit or hope, I still sometimes find myself asking God to intervene in my life. I just can’t stop myself, although my prayers have changed significantly.

I am not sure if I should stop praying for material help altogether. But I am sure that God is not going to intervene in my life just because I ask. Even if I ask in faith. Even if I’m asking for a good thing. Even if I’m praying unselfishly for someone else. And even if someone is suffering. Christ has said he will heal our wounds, but he will not prevent us from being wounded. And if God is going to stop short of solving problems for me, I think I should stop asking him to solve them. Believing that he will is magical thinking, and I am trying to give that up.

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Sacrament Meeting Talk on Faith . . . Crises

One of my local feminist friends was asked to speak on Faith in church a few weeks ago. She turned it into a talk about faith crises and used her own experiences as well as those of her friends to help illustrate the points. To support her, I attended the meeting and was so proud to see her deliver this talk to a group of fairly wealthy, white, suburban Mormons. While it seemed like some of them (particularly the man grumbling behind me) were not in agreement, Christine has since received much positive feedback, including having her talk quoted by someone else the next week! Our local AZ WAVE group met and discussed the impact of speaking our truth in church meetings and it was a really positive experience. We even thought about joining each other in wards to provide back up and support.  I’ve considered sending it to my bishop and telling him that I’d be willing to give a talk if I could give THIS talk. I hope you enjoy this talk as much as I do.  -JessawhyIMG_4337

Guest Post by Christine Leavitt

Our Journey for the Fruits of Faith – January 26, 2014

I was asked to speak about the topic of faith.  When contemplating this topic, the following three thoughts came to my mind concerning faith which I would like to discuss:

  1. Faith is a journey, and everyone has a unique faith journey in which their faith will change and develop throughout their lifetime

  2. Faith is a principle of action and loyalty to that which one chooses to have faith in

  3. Faith is hope, not knowledge

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Sacred Music: Jesus Christ the Apple Tree

One of my favorite pieces of sacred music is called Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.  I associate it with Christmas because it usually appears on seasonal albums but in fact nothing about the lyrics link it to the Nativity.  I like the imagery of Christ as a fruitful tree, perhaps because the tree image in our faith is so often associated with sin and in particular female sin.  The idea that a fruit tree is in fact a symbol of Christ is something that I find very sweet and comforting, particularly as my home valley is filled with orchards.

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree
by Elizabeth Poston


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Hope in the Darkness

Hope in the DarknessExactly one week before President Uchtdorf offered his beautiful General Conference address suggesting that there are genuine reasons why some members of the church may doubt, I attended a conference in New York City, dedicated to that very theme.

The official title was “Negotiating LDS History and Faith Challenges.” The speakers were Richard Bushman, Fiona Givens, and Terryl Givens. It was sponsored by The Temple and The Observatory Group.

This is the part where I am about to share my notes. It is also the part where I explain that they are neither perfect nor complete: the conference was 6 hours, and I only had my phone to tap the words and sentences that meant the most to me.

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Cozy Quilt of Suffocation

Worn QuiltIt’s like an old quilt, worn-out with holes and not much to look at, but warm and cozy to wrap yourself in when you need comfort. This is how I perceived the Why I Stay panelists at Sunstone feel about the church (I enjoyed the panel very much, by the way). They are aware of the problematic history, doctrine, and policies, and yet they choose to stay.

And I get that. I want the church to be a comforting place for people who need comfort. That is our job as Christians, after all. When I think of my friends in the ward, I feel that comfort. We’ve been in our ward for nine years. Ward members who saw my son as an 18 month old in 2004 will see him ordained to the priesthood next summer. The community of support and love is wonderful and almost all I need.

Except that it’s not. I need a church that embraces my values, especially the value of equality. I need a church where I can attend and hold on to my integrity (I currently check mine at the door each week). I need a church where women are not only told that they’re valuable, but are ACTUALLY VALUABLE in making decisions that affect us all.

A recent example of the prominence and importance of men in the church involved the leadership change in my ward. One bishopric counselor who had been serving for less than a year was reassigned back to his semi-permanent calling of Scout Master. Apparently since he left, some of the young men had not acquired their Eagle Scout awards, and a more committed Scout Master was required. So, ward leadership was shuffled, an entire Sacrament meeting was devoted to this man and the new counselor. The importance of these changes were punctuated by the presence of the entire Stake Presidency. I was really upset and Mark asked me why. I said, “Would there ever be a young women’s calling that is so important that they would rearrange the entire Bishopric to make sure that the young women were properly staffed?”
Perhaps situations like this are a symptom of the greater problem of lack of emphasis, or acknowledgement of the Divine Feminine. Our worship services are void of nearly all feminine influences and it pains my soul. Yesterday, a friend of mine was lamenting the fact that Relief Society lessons hardly ever contain stories of women. And while we could find some stories to substitute, they wouldn’t hold they same power because the women they belong to didn’t go on to become members of the Quorum of the 12, or prophets. It’s easy to see the value of formative experiences of current leaders, it’s harder to see the value of women’s experiences when we hardly see any women at a church leadership level.

During Sacrament meeting a few weeks ago I was overwhelmed by the patriarchy and had a feeling that I was suffocating. I couldn’t breathe, then I realized that it was as though I was drowning. I saw myself underwater, staring up at a blurred group of men in suits and ties. They looked down at me and I could hear them saying, “You don’t need to breathe. You’re just fine. Don’t worry, don’t struggle.”

I was terrified.

I still am terrified.

What’s come to me most recently is that raising sons in this church may be even more difficult than raising daughters. And as it happens, I have three sons. It’s certainly easy to point to unequal treatment in YM/YW and ask a girl how she feels about it and help her see why inequality is wrong. Harder still is to tell a son that he doesn’t deserve the privileges he’s got as part of the male sex. Inequality seems less important when he’s standing on the advantaged side. It’s my job to tell him that he’s not really that special when the gift and power of the priesthood tell him otherwise. Power is a heady drug, even, maybe especially ecclesiastical power. Add to that a mother who is apparently “power hungry,” and it’s easy for a boy to dismiss this concern.

Part of me wonders if it’s possible to shake the feeling of suffocation and replace it with the cozy feeling of a warm quilt. I recognize that while I’d like the church to change and I’m certainly taking steps to make that happen, I’m not in any capacity to make it happen and I can’t hold my breath any longer.

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Lord, Let Me Be a Wind Tunnel

Often in spring and summer I perform an early-morning ritual: shortly after awakening, I move from my ground-floor bedroom to the downstairs and open the family room door as wide as it will open. Then I walk back upstairs and do the same thing with the kitchen door. Both doors face west, so when I return through the downstairs hallway I make a U-turn as I step onto the landing and head back up the stairs.

When both doors are open the stairway becomes a wind tunnel. Cool air rushes upward, sucked from the refrigerated belowground basement by warmer upstairs air fleeing its confines to join the great ether beyond. (Who among us doesn’t love the laws of physics?) At these times a person could stand in the basement hallway or at the top of the stairs and feel a gentle breeze, if she so desired. Which I do. From time-to-time. I have a swamp cooler, which I adore during dry Utah summers, but my life-long love affair with nature moves me to allow fresh air to have its way with my home on cool, quiet mornings.


On this early Sabbath as I write, with birds chirping outside the living room window, I can’t help seeing a metaphor here. I see the Holy Spirit moving like that morning air through our hearts and minds – if we will just open the doors. I think of all the angst and sorrow and pain we suffer as human beings, as women and as Latter-day Saints. I think of all the truth available to us because we believe God actually converses with us through the spirit—God, not some abstract, mystical, incomprehensible eternal entity, but a loving parent—whispers truth, teaches us things our child-like minds struggle to comprehend, urges us to press forward with whatever good work our heart desires, and most importantly, offers comfort amidst our confusion and sorrow.

I don’t know why women aren’t currently ordained to the priesthood. I don’t know why there is a monument to “worldliness” in the heart of Salt Lake City, funded in part by the LDS church. I don’t know how God will resolve the questions of gender and identity and same-sex marriage within the context of church doctrine. I’m not always at peace about these or other concerns that plague me.

Yet, for me, the single most astounding piece of doctrine within the Mormon faith is this: that God speaks to us where we live. And that each person can find answers to her questions if she is willing to let go of whatever keeps her from the truth. Each of us can find solace and comfort through the spirit. For some, this may mean leaving the faith or stepping away for a time. For others it may mean weeping before, during or after every church meeting they attend.

For me, it mostly means to remain open and believing. All the time. As often as possible. Because at unexpected moments and in unexpected ways, the truth makes its way into my heart from around the proverbial corner, pushing out old beliefs and renewing my faith in the fresh air, the Good News that the gospel of Jesus Christ brings. That’s how it is today anyway.

How is it for you these days?

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