“My entire belief system has shifted”

My name is Sherry. Forty-eight. Mom of three with four bonus children! Happy, fun with a liberal heart and mind. I live in Utah, with my husband, our two cats (Prince Jerry and Princess Madeline). I’m constantly creating, looking for inspiration, and always up for an adventure.

Andy Carter/flickr/Creative Commons

At the young age of 8 years old, I was baptized into the Mormon Church, also known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I didn’t really know much about the church or religion other than I knew it was expected of me to be baptized and my parents were members.

I think I realized around age 10 or 11 that my family was exclusively different from other families in the church. By this, I mean the way other families behaved versus the way my family (parents) behaved.

My friend’s parents would hold weekly Monday night family nights. My parents didn’t do that. My friend’s families would pray together, pray at meals and read scriptures. My parents didn’t do that either.

I learned the word hypocrite at a fairly young age. One morning after a Sunday school class I was called a hypocrite by another young girl. At that moment, I didn’t know what the word meant but I learned later on and it devastated me. I began to dread going to church because of the other children and I always felt like my family was different. I mean, my family had never even been to the temple, let alone, sealed for time and eternity. Nevertheless, I had to go to church every Sunday, Wednesday and any other afternoon or night that an activity took place. My childhood and preteen social life revolved around the Mormon Church, which at the time didn’t seem too awfully bad.

I didn’t learn about the church history or what Mormons truly believe until just a few years ago. Of course I had heard rumors about Joseph Smith and his mystical and enchanting behavior and obviously I knew about Brigham Young’s polygamy. At any rate, I didn’t give any of it much thought and continued on with my “beliefs” and developed a rather judgmental attitude towards anyone who didn’t believe the way that I did or practice Mormonism.

Here is an example: after my husband I were married in the Salt Lake Temple in 2006 our son (my stepson) had recently returned home from his mission. He met a girl who was not a member of the church and asked her to marry him. I was furious! I was mean to his fiancée and talked behind her back. It breaks my heart now just knowing how mean and closed minded I was. I have since, apologized for my behavior and we are close and I love her unconditionally.

A few years ago, I read a book by Rebecca Musser called The Witness Wore Red. It’s a story about the woman who brought Warren Jeffs, the “prophet” from the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS), to justice. While reading her book I noticed quite a few similarities between the FLDS and the LDS churches. In fact, almost everything was the same except for the polygamous relationships. It really bothered me. I couldn’t shake the feeling off and decided that I needed to do more research on the Mormon Church’s history.

With that said, after a full year of research, reading and studying I made the decision to be fully authentic with myself. What this meant was that I could no longer subscribe to an organization that had more flawed history than what I was willing to put my trust and faith into.

It has been a journey and a huge eye opener for me. I have some family who continue to accept me and some who do not. It’s taken a toll on my marriage and we have had some tough times. We are still together though. I have learned not to discuss or bring up religion with my husband. I accept him as a person and love him. His beliefs are not my beliefs. My thoughts are that we don’t have to share the same beliefs in order to be a couple. It’s still uncertain to me if he would agree with that statement. We just don’t “go there.”

I no longer believe in patriarchy or that men are the only ones worthy to hold higher positions than women. I no longer believe that “God” only wants straight people or members of the Mormon Church in heaven, or in Mormon terms, the “Celestial Kingdom.

My entire belief system has shifted. I went from certainty to uncertainty in a very short time. I believe I’m a good person and I don’t feel a need to belong to an organized religion to prove that to myself or anyone else and if there is a God, I don’t think he/she cares either.

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To say what is truth?

27I have not been able to stop thinking about an essay I read a few months ago: “Oh Say What is Truth? Understanding Mormonism Through a Black Feminist Epistemology”  The author argues that in Mormonism truth is acquired through feeling, citing D&C 9:8, as well as through lived experience; these are the ways we “find out for ourselves.”  These methods of determining truth are part of a black feminist epistemology set forth by Patricia Hill Collins, and the essay argues that her ideas are very close to Mormon methods of determining truth.

Taking feelings and lived experience a step further, Collins argues that a collective dialogue is essential to furthering and developing the truth that each person has acquired, and that each person has a moral obligation to share her truth.  Collins wrote, “The fundamental requirement of [a collective dialogue] is the active participation of all individuals. For ideas to be tested and validated, everyone in the group must participate. To refuse to join in, especially if one really disagrees with what has been said, is seen as ‘cheating.’” The essayist concludes, “Because we all have a truth to speak, to fail to speak our truth especially when it is needed most – when it is being contradicted – is to fail the community’s efforts to build collective, experienced-based truth as a whole body.”

I try to live as though participating in collective dialogue is a moral obligation.  For years I’ve felt that speaking my truth regarding gender equality in Mormonism is one of the important purposes of my life.  For example, Mormonism is patriarchal, but I believe patriarchy is a Judeo-Christian heritage not inspired by God, passed down through many years of unchecked sexism, and now entangled so that it touches nearly every aspect of Church culture and much of Church doctrine.  How do I live as part of a religious community with strongly held traditional beliefs and while hoping for radical change?

I do it by talking.  I use inclusive language, I comment often in Sunday School and Relief Society, I get up in fast and testimony meeting a few times every year, I give carefully crafted talks that are both diplomatic and radical, and I write for a Mormon feminist blog and paper.  I speak my truth wherever I can.  This can be scary because it opens me up for criticism and judgement, but it can also create unexpected connections with people who resonate with what I’ve said.  In the context of contemporary American life it may seem tame to speak truth in one’s own small community – others have spoken up at much greater cost than I have, and to greater effect.  But to do this consistently, to remain attached to a community that has expanded my spirit but also makes me weep, this takes courage and staying power.

So, my ideas matter, even if, or especially when, they are contrary to the status quo.  And if a collective dialogue is needed to develop and advance knowledge, then I need to keep showing up for that dialogue.  I also believe that organizations need insiders working for change for that change to become possible.

But here’s the problem.  What if I’m a lone reed?  In my experience there needs to be a critical mass of people in a Sunday School discussion to get an idea afloat.  It’s great when that happens, and the discussion becomes enlightening and enlivening.  But what if comments or questions fall flat and the teacher marches on with the lesson as planned?  What if people hold your truth in contempt, or possibly worse, just ignore it?  A dialogue in which everyone participates sounds great, but in does that ever happen in real life?  What if, as happened to me earlier this month, a First Presidency letter, the bishopric’s selection of the theme for sacrament meeting, and the material in the talks and discussions form a unified block of content that I don’t resonate with?  Are comments against such a backdrop useful, or contentious even if contention is not my intent?

I’m lonely and tired, friends.  So please, give me your stories.  When you speak up, how does it go?  What do you learn?  Does it create a spark for generating sincere discussion?  Or does your spark fall to the ground, extingushed?  If it’s the latter, what does that mean?

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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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Where is God?

“Breath of Life” by J. Kirk Richards

CW: rape, stillbirth

 

Three stories:

1. A woman is promised a long life in her patriarchal blessing.  She dies young from an incurable disease.

2. A woman feels that she heard the voice of God telling her to go on a mission, and subsequent promptings in prayer and in the temple confirm this decision.  On the first day in her mission, she is violently raped by an intruder and immediately returns home.

3. A woman is told in a dream or vision that she will have a daughter whose name is revealed to her, and that this daughter will go on to do great things.  She discovers she’s unexpectedly pregnant, but later delivers a stillborn daughter.

Where is God in this?  Why would God direct people in these ways when these are the events that follow?

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Finding God in Community

"Lightning on Columbus River" by Ian Boggs

“Lightning on Columbus River”
by Ian Boggs

By Jenny

The spring thunderstorms have set my mind back to my youth.  I watch the misty greyness creep in as the rolling thunder awakens in me a sense that a powerful universal force exists.  Lightning pierces the melancholy clouds and lacerates the sky with its fierce power.  It’s as if God is raging in the heavens above, until the clouds open and the fierceness turns to a cleansing grace which flows freely to earth allowing life and beauty to thrive.

My teenage years also flowed with grace that allowed life and beauty to thrive in me.  I was nurtured by community and by dedicated leaders.  I lived in a world filled with scripture stories, faith, and miracles.  On a Book of Mormon Trek the summer after I turned sixteen, these scripture stories surrounded me in the form of handcarts and liahonas helping my youth group through the wilderness like Lehi’s family.  Prophets appeared to tell their stories and miracles surrounded us at every bend.  My leaders had put their heart and souls into planning a three-day trek that they hoped would be life-changing for those in their charge.  And it was.

I sat in the forest alone after the prophet Enos had appeared.  He sent us to pray and meditate on our own in the woods as he had done.  My scriptures lay open on my lap as the thunder began to roll in.  I looked up at the sky and smiled.  I could feel raindrops slowly kissing my face.  The smell of newness filled the air.  Thunder crept closer to me, as if warning me of what was coming.  Suddenly a boom shook the earth and the forest was consumed with fire.  A sharp pain shot through my back and I fell to the ground.  Through the chaos of people running down the mountain, I stumbled and was carried to a tent.  The doctor came quickly and looked at my back.  When he decided I was fine (just experiencing acute shock), he couldn’t hide his excitement over seeing an actual mark left by a lightning strike.  He took a picture.

The Stake President and Bishop came in then to give me a blessing.  Everyone in the tent could feel the power at that moment.  I don’t remember exactly what my bishop said.  It wasn’t so much a power of words, as it was a power of love and belief shared among humans.  When they left the doctor checked my back, but the mark was gone.  As a community, we felt the miracle in this event.  No one else on that mountain was hurt.  Through the storm, God had showed us power and grace.  I spent my teenage years feeling wrapped in that blanket of grace, safe and secure.

From that environment of communal nurturing and growth came a strong and powerful faith.  Over the years my faith has become more complex.  I have gained a deeper understanding of experiences beyond my own.  I have found knowledge that extends beyond my cultural conditioning.  I see now that things aren’t as they always seemed to me when I was younger.  Some might call the complexities of my faith “doubt,” but that word doesn’t describe it.

I have frequently been asked over the last few years, “So what do you believe?”  I don’t have the words, or maybe the words are meaningless to someone who hasn’t experienced my journey.  How do you describe what lightning feels like to someone who has never been hit by lightning?  If I could just show you my faith.  If you could see it, feel it, hear it, taste it…like running out into a thunderstorm, arms out, feeling energy flashing in the sky, the rain streaming down your face.  If you could only know my faith the way I do.  But you are in your safe shelter, watching the storm from a distance.  All it is to you is a disturbance to your plans, a tempest when you want sunshine.

I don’t claim to know the form of God.  Male, female, an old man with a beard, a king, a spirit, energy, embodied being, the evolutionary perfection of the human race, Elohim, Allah, Krishna…it doesn’t matter to me.  God is perfect love.  God is brightest light which opens the mind and fills it with knowledge and wisdom.  God is energy to move in a positive and powerful way.  God is grace.

I felt that grace as a young girl.  I felt it through family, friends, and leaders.  It kept me in the light.  It moved me in a positive direction.  It surrounded me with the power of love.  I don’t feel like I am wrapped in a blanket of grace anymore.  So I must generate grace within my own soul.  God is in me.  God is in the way I love, forgive, and connect with other people.  God is in the way I accept my imperfect faith and move forward.  God is in the way my heart tries to understand those who don’t understand me.  I believe God’s power and grace can be found in lightning and miracles.  God’s power and grace are in communities that nurture, build, and support each other.  God’s power and grace are in a heart that is open to love.     As Victor Hugo wrote in Les Miserables, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

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

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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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