A Spiritual Hiatus

“Will you be moving your records into the branch?”

“….Maybe.”

The YSA Branch Relief Society President was happy and cheerful enough–– not yet jaded by New York City (for now). With a pleasant grin on her face and sincerity in her voice, she asked if I would be joining their motley YSA crew here in New York. I told her an honest “maybe”. I attended my local Young Single Adult branch this past Sunday, made new friends, and felt pretty much at home. It didn’t hurt that the Relief Society lesson was not from the Ezra Taft Benson manual, but instead, on supporting and encouraging ourselves and other women. I also took comfort in the fact that the aforementioned Relief Society President said things like, “Welcome to Brooklyn! Where you can wear pants to church and no one will blog about it!” and then cursed in her lesson–– without the sister missionaries, senior sister missionary, or branch president’s wife blinking an eye. It was the most subversive and uplifting church experience I’ve ever had in recent memory. It felt so good being in church that day.

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Renovating My Faith

house renovations

My husband’s cousin lives in a gorgeous, old house – it was built around 1885, and was one of the first homes built in that area. Their family bought the home over twenty years ago as young parents and have lived there ever since. Sure, there have been some quirks – some major, some minor – but that’s inevitable when your house is over a century old. For example, the foundation was comprised of large, stacked stones and rough-cut timbers dug only two feet into the ground, and the walls were a mixture of dried adobe mud bricks, fired clay bricks, and plaster. The pipes were cast iron and rusting out, and the sewer line kept breaking. There were some aesthetic annoyances as well: having been “updated” in the 60′s and 70′s, the walls had green avocado paneling, with matching avocado-stained cabinets, and an olive green stove. There was an abundance of outdated wallpaper throughout the house. But there were also some really lovely things about the old pioneer home: 11-foot ceilings in most rooms, intricately-detailed woodwork and trim around the doors and windows, and turn-of-the-century light fixtures that were installed in the house around 1905 (when electricity was first made available in the area). And after 23 years in this house, it had become their family home – they could point out where their kids had learned to read, where they gathered for family activities, and where their child fell and ended up needing stitches.  However, in the last couple of years, they found themselves at a crossroads.  Some of the structural issues in the home were so major that they needed to make a big decision.

Do they renovate their home? Buy a new (to them) home? Or build a new home?

They’ve decided to renovate, and the word “renovate” is actually a complete understatement. They’ve had to rip their house down to the studs, remove most of the walls, and completely replace the foundation. Hoping to have more room, they dug out a basement underneath the still-standing house. All of the plumbing, duct work, sewer lines, and electrical work had to be dug out and replaced. They basically had to break everything down to the bare minimum, decide what was worth keeping and what needed to be replaced (or removed), and then build the entire thing back up again. They added things along the way, and changed a couple of things, but ultimately fought really hard to maintain the original character and shape of the house.

Watching this year-long project unfold (via Facebook updates) has been alternately baffling and awe-inspiring. Why on earth would you take on such a big project?? Is it really worth the time, energy, and resources that you put into it? Was the old house that bad? Would a new house have been that bad? Yet I found myself inspired by how well they were getting to know their house – they know every nook and cranny, every pipe, every wall. They know which walls are still original and which had to be replaced. I admit turning green with envy when they found a copy of the Saturday Evening Post from 1920 (in great condition) under one of their floors. And the balance has shifted from me being less baffled to more awestruck as they’ve come closer and closer to completing their project. It’s turning out to be a gorgeous house, with all of the beauty and history of the original 1885 house, but with the structural integrity and functionality of a 2014 house.

I can’t help but see similarities between this home renovation and the continual “faith renovation” I’ve been doing over the past several years. I feel like “faith renovation” or “faith reconstruction” is more apt for me than “faith crisis” or “faith transition” – I don’t feel like I’m in crisis, and I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere. I was born and raised in the Mormon church. I have been active my entire life. There is so much that I love about my faith – I love the rich theology, the pioneer stories, the hymns, the concept of a Mother in Heaven, and the idea that we are Gods and Goddesses in embryo. But there have been things that I’ve discovered throughout the years that are huge problems for my Mormonism, and they have threatened to collapse my entire faith. So over the last 5+ years, I’ve been gradually stripping my Mormonism down, deciding what is worth keeping, what needs to be replaced (or removed), and then building the entire thing back up again.

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“The Crucible of Doubt”: A Review

Doubt

I found “The Crucible of Doubt” to be rich with insight into age-old religious questions.  Many of the chapters gave voice (and deeper meaning) to ideas I was already forming – regarding church, religion, and faith.  I was also inspired with new ideas and found myself reframing worship and God in new, positive ways.  I would recommend this book to any person of faith.

My two favorite chapters are Chapter 3, The Role and Function of the Church and Chapter 8, Find Your Watering Place.

In Chapter 3 (The Role and Function of the Church) brought to life many discussion I’ve had with others:  “Faith is a way of life; a church is an institution designed to strengthen people in the expression of that life.” The Givens’ seem to say that true religion is a part of a person and an individual journey; the church is an aid to the human spirit and to this journey.

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Childhood Myths

Childhood Myths

“…and that Mother Earth and Father Sun and Grandmother Universe will take care of us and watch over us…”

That was a line in the prayer my six-year-old gave for our nightly family prayer earlier this week. We go to church every week and my kids get the same standard Primary lessons, but I love how they interpret beliefs for themselves. My daughter has gone to a Waldorf class for over a year now and the teacher likes to tell stories about “Father Sun” and “Mother Earth” and the “star children” (us) who have come down to earth. Earlier this week, we had been discussing the Maya Creation myth and talked about the similarities and differences between it and the Genesis Creation myth. She told me she thinks the Maya myth is wrong and that Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother and Jesus made the earth. I smiled and said that everyone has their own story for how the world was made. While her beliefs have a Mormon base, they have a strand of her own understanding and interpretation.

Mother EarthOn the other hand, my four-year-old believes in a very different vein of Mormonism. Like he’s been taught in Primary, he believes he’ll be with Jesus in heaven after he dies, but that’s not where his vision of the after-life ends. It’s not uncommon for him to start a conversation with, “When I’m born again…” He believes in reincarnation and that after going to heaven, he’ll be reborn back to earth.

Both my daughter’s and son’s beliefs tickle me a lot. It’s amazing to see how the same teachings are interpreted through the minds of children. I know some parents would be quick to “correct” these sorts of thoughts, but I like giving them space to explore their own spiritualities. Why not believe in Grandmother Universe watching over us? Or that we’ll get another lifetime on earth to be with our loved ones? It reminds me of how I used to ask Heavenly Father to hand the prayer receiver to Heavenly Mother so I could talk with her.

The beliefs of children underscore the human desire to be connected and cared for by someone greater than us and to know that there is something for us after we die. I have one other child, who is too young to really share her beliefs (or have them?) but I look forward to learning what they are and to watch another person try to reach the divine.

Do you remember what your beliefs were when you were little? How have they shaped you? 

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Sacred Music: Simple Song

I had the opportunity to sing in the chorus for a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS when I was a senior in high school. As a young person I had no idea what a big deal this was–Bernstein’s MASS is hugely controversial and rarely performed because of its enormity. And while this was all lost on me, I found that the music spoke to a part of me that I could not articulate. This piece of music and theater is joyful in its celebration of life and God. But MASS does not shy away from the cognitive dissonance of an ostensibly loving God and the reality human anguish. Indeed, one of the more controversial aspects of MASS is its unapologetic confrontation of God.

As a good Mormon girl, both the music and text were mind blowing to me, I had no idea that you could approach God with such dissonance. But MASS also spoke truth to my soul. Somehow I knew that any god worth worshipping was also vital enough to withstand my questions and sometimes anger.

The piece which I have highlighted here, Simple Song, is at the very beginning of the MASS. It is sung by the celebrant who begins the piece with a simple and pure faith but struggles to maintain his faith as he becomes more aware of the suffering, corruption and evil around him. I feel like my own testimony has taken a similar journey. When I performed the MASS as a young woman my faith was also simple but since that time I have gone through a long dark night of the soul. It has been difficult to reconcile my early faith and spiritual experiences with the perceived absence of God from my life. I have spent years being angry that despite my efforts, God was silent.

I have found recently, however, that my simple faith is returning. I am not blind to the hardships of mortality but I also feel as though my decade long  struggle with God has softened, not scarred, my heart. In that place of rawness a feeling of gratitude has sprouted. I may never have the powerful faith that we as Mormons are expected to have but I am finding joy in lifting up my eyes to the God.

For the Lord is my shade.

All of my days.

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Leaving the Old Ship Zion to Walk on Water

IMG_9053By Jenny

I noticed a theme of water analogies in the Sunday afternoon session of Conference.  These analogies made me think about perspective and how we perceive the world differently based on our different experiences.  First Elder Ballard shared a familiar narrative: The Old Ship Zion.  We are all in a boat representing the church and we must hold tightly to it and obey our trusty guides lest we fall overboard and drown.  Because of this narrative, I have spent my whole life fearing the unsure waters of the world, while I have had absolute faith in the boat, its captain, and my life jacket.  Little did I know that those would be the very things to cause doubt and cognitive dissonance for me.

I began to realize that my faith was slightly misplaced.  After all, faith has never been about staying safely on the shoreline or holding tightly to a boat.  Look at our great scriptural heroes.  They didn’t fear the water, they controlled it and conquered it with their faith.  Moses didn’t say, “Well it’s too dangerous to cross this sea so I guess we will stay on solid ground.”  No, with faith greater than his fear and uncertainty, he parted the waters.  Nephi and the Jaredites didn’t give up on discovering the promised land because the unknown waters were too scary for them.  No, they put their faith in God and conquered those waters.  Sure, they stayed in the boats, but in this case, the boats represent the unknown, not the safe, sure bet.

Peter didn’t stay in the boat.  He took those scary unsure steps out into the raging sea so that his faith could grow.  Like Peter, I also had to leave the boat in order for my faith to grow.  Sometimes it is necessary to plunge into the raging waters in order to build enough faith to walk on the water.  Isn’t that what life is for?  To discover our own divinity and power, not to obey mandates that take us all down one smooth safely charted course?  When I left the boat, all my ward members and leaders saw was me leaving the safety of the boat.  They didn’t see what I saw.  They didn’t see the Savior standing with outstretched arms, beckoning me, saying, “You can do it.  You were born to walk on the water, not to be afraid of it.”  So I can understand why their perspective is different from my own.

But just because I got out of the boat and learned to walk doesn’t mean that I didn’t want to come back to the Old Ship Zion and be with the people I love.  In fact, I wanted to jump back in the boat and tell them all about the amazing experience I had just had on the water.  Unfortunately my shipmates and trusty guides are all used to the familiar narrative that Elder Ballard shared.  From their perspective I had already drowned.  So they steered the ship away from me in hopes that no one else would fall over.  From my perspective, I was clinging to the boat when they pried my hands loose and sailed away, throwing my Mormon belongings overboard as they went.

Later in the conference session, Elder Larry S. Kacher talked about currents.  I enjoyed his perspective at first, because he was sharing from his personal experience.  He talked about a current he found when he joined the church that led him in a positive direction.  His family and friends couldn’t see it from his perspective.  I related to that because I have also found a current that is leading my life in a positive direction, but my friends think that I am trapped in the very negative current that Elder Kacher goes on to talk about.  He mentions two specific people he knows distantly and states that they have been swept up in negative currents that caused them to leave the church.  I hated these second-hand accounts of these two different men because he reduced their experiences to a formulaic statement that I doubt actually reflects or resonates with their true experience.  When we try to speak for another person and their experience which is different from our own, we are bound to get it wrong.  We need to stop doing this as a church.  Unfortunately I hear all too often these second-hand accounts from local and general leaders.  It’s sort of like an acceptable form of gossip.  But it’s not acceptable…not really.

I know that no one can share my story and get it exactly right.  Least of all, someone who won’t try to understand things from my perspective, but uses an old familiar narrative to prove a point.  My story has been shared publicly by my own leaders as a way to instill fear in others about the water.  After several meetings with my bishop and stake president in which they neither listened to nor tried to understand me, my bishop spoke in Relief Society and Sunday School about my situation.  I guarantee he did not get my story right, but it fulfilled his purpose of maintaining one narrative in the ward, that if you leave the boat you will drown, that if you aren’t careful about what you get into online, you will be swept away in the current.  When church leaders like Elder Kacher share other people’s stories in conference to promote this one-sided narrative, it gives local leaders the feeling that they can do it too.  The problem with maintaining this one narrative is that it doesn’t account for the fact that faith is an individual thing.  One narrative does not work for everyone.  That’s why it is important to listen to each other’s perspectives, and to understand that the church may be a good current for some, but it can also be a negative current for others.

A few years ago I tried to capture my perspective, conveniently enough, in a water analogy.  I had just broken through the mounting cognitive dissonance and realized that the raging sea is not what I had once believed it to be.  I felt a mix of exhilaration and sadness.  Exhilaration because I was learning to walk on water.  Sadness because I knew exactly how my experience would be perceived by my friends and family.  I knew that it would be almost impossible to help them see it from my perspective.  So, regardless of the narrative the church leaders are sharing about people like me who have experienced a faith transition, here is my narrative, based on my experience and perspective:

Oh to go back! Sweet sweet oblivion! My path is full of pain and anguish. I didn’t want to come head on with the construct of the world that I have always known. But once the cracks began to form, the water started seeping in. I tried to plug them up, but some cracks were just too deep. Soon my dam broke and the water came faster than I could handle. How much easier it might have been if I wasn’t surrounded by people whose dams are sure. They look at me and say, “You are only a ruined dam. You gave up everything because you let the cracks take over. You should have stayed on the safe side. Read your scriptures, pray, strengthen your testimony…” But I am NOT a broken dam! I am a river going beyond. I see a world that they will never know as long as they are a wall built to keep things in. I am not departing from the things I gained through religion. A dammed lake that becomes a river takes with it the essence of what it is. I take it all with me as I search other paths and seek for fertile ground. I keep the good and beautiful things and let go of the dirt that tries to follow. My paths are exciting and new. I change the world around me while my world shapes and directs me. I have a relationship with life and God that I never knew was possible during my time as a solid wall. Back then I was too busy keeping my lake stagnant and still, to notice the complexity of everything. Now the fear is gone and I am free. Free to roam, free to live, free to love, and free to learn. Yet still, it is hard to know that I am a river exploring new and beautiful places…because still, they call me a broken dam.
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