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 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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