A Book Review (Of Sorts): Way Below the Angels

Craig Harline

Not very long ago, I read this post, that made me want to read this book, Way Below the Angels: the pretty clearly troubled but not even close to tragic confessions of a real live Mormon missionary. Even shorter ago, I did.

While it isn’t a woman’s story, I still feel that it is worth reviewing here, in this women’s story space for two reasons. 1) The author, Craig Harline, does a fairly good job pointing out when women’s stories, voices, and presence are forgotten.

One example of this is when his Salt Lake Mission Home President tells a mixed group of Elders and Sisters that they are to dress like “local businessmen.” Another is when his going-Belgium group was moved to the Rexburg, Idaho LTM, and they held a nightly devotional with the older going-Belgium missionaries, that fully excluded the Sisters because it was in an Elder’s dorm room. The saddest examples took place in Belgium. The first question they asked women who answered the door was if they could speak to their husband. Not because they weren’t allowed to speak to women, but because they were taught that they should focus on the man. A woman named Lieve demanded focus, because she had a dream and a wish to be baptized. She also had a husband who did not share that dream or wish. He was required to sign a permission slip, which he did. But then he took it back. Lieve learned that if her husband had the dream and wish, her signature would not be needed.*

2) Harline’s ofttimes funny/ofttimes insightful words created a space for me to remember my own mission story.

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General Conference: Feeling Tossed on the Old Ship Zion

life-preserver

For the most part I’m a fan of General Conference. I like to spend Saturdays working on a project, headphones on and hearing counsel and stories about the gospel. Sundays I turn it on in the kitchen and try to listen as I simultaneously instruct the kids on the proper way to make frijoles or corn chowder or whatever yumminess we’ll eat during the break between session. Sunday afternoon is spent in a food coma in the basement, drifting in and out of sleep as I recline on the futon. Some talks I like. Some bug me. But I usually walk away a little more committed and renewed. But this past weekend, I felt pulled in two different directions and I’m a little queasy as a result.

My favorite speaker is always Jeffrey Holland. I love his intelligence. I love his relationship with his wife Pat (she is his equal, not his “sweet companion”) and that comes out in how he talks about and to women. I love that he always has a thesis and sticks with it (English major here). His Saturday afternoon talk focused on how the Savior’s first “messianic call” was to care for the poor. “The great Redeemer has issued no more persistent call than for us to join him in lifting this heavy burden from the people.” He really hit home our duty to “seek opportunities to care for the poor.” Aside from fast offerings, he promised that God “will guide you in compassionate acts of discipleship if you are conscientiously wanting and praying and looking for ways to keep a commandment He has given us again and again.”

And other talks made reference to serving in our communities and as communities. I delighted in hearing Elder Wong talk (in Cantonese!!) about the absolute need to “Rescue in Unity.” “We can all help one another,” he said. “We should always be anxiously engaged in seeking to rescue those in need. … When we assist (Jesus Christ) in his mission of saving souls, we too will be rescued in the process.” I felt the truth of their admonitions. As I say to my teenage son who no longer identifies as Mormon, “I don’t care as much if you believe in Christ as I do that you act like Christ.”

But there was another theme: the need to put family gospel study first. This was referenced many times, most particularly by Elder Scott who focused on the necessity of making one’s family the center of all our efforts. On Sunday afternoon he spoke of four tools. And here is where I started to feel guilty. And stressed. And confused. But don’t mistake my anxiety as disapproval or dislike because I actually believe in the benefits of his four tools:

1)   Family Prayer morning and night is “nonnegotiable priority in daily life, more important than sleep, school, media…”

2)   Scripture Study as a family, same as above

3)   FHE needs to be every Monday night and nothing, not “employment, sports, homework” should stand in the way.

4)   Attend the Temple.

I kinda wanted to cry, because as a SAHM who is actively trying to raise her family in the gospel, I WANT these things in my life. I TRY to do these things but fail. Majorly. Especially if the standard for success is Every. Single. Day. Twice. Whatever happened to the lovely vagueness of the word “regular?”  Regular prayer and scripture study are goals I can live with. But nonnegotiable rocks my boat, because I cannot prioritize my family as Scott urges and also serve those around me in the way Holland envisions.

As I listened to Elder Scott, I started to picture two versions of Elder Ballard’s “Old Ship Zion.” One ship is large, filled with many souls. Sometimes I have to leave my kids on the poop deck to go into the galley and wash dishes or play shuffleboard with a widow who desperately needs the company. Scriptures are not always studied because my time and attention are spent elsewhere, mending sails and swabbing decks. But my kids are learning to work and serve as well. Yet when I think of Scott’s focus on shoring up my family, I see me and my kids on a small boat, a dinghy of sorts. The only way I can make those four tools a regular part of our lives is to isolate ourselves. Become the Swiss Family Robinson. If I am going to make it happen, I cannot pull other people onto my boat.

I freely admit that my life is better when I have managed to make prayer and scriptures a regular part of our lives. There is a peace. But there is also a price. Because FHE is not simply 4o minutes on Monday night. It means meals and homework and lessons and projects all have to be dealt with ahead of time, often at great cost. It means preparing a spiritual message that a 17 year old and an 8 year old will listen to. And nobody’s mad, but all those tasks usually fall on the woman’s shoulders. So as Elder Scott talks about the peace brought by these tasks, I feel a little resentful because if any of it is going to happen, the tasks will be mine and mine alone. It ain’t right, but that’s how it is for me and most of the women I know. So we hear this counsel, and we want the benefits but just don’t know if we are capable of paying the price. What (or who) will we have to toss overboard to keep our family afloat?

I am torn because I know I cannot heed both orders. I cannot serve in my ward and community, as I love to, as Holland and Wong urge us to, if my days are filled with nonnegotiable obligations. If I go out in the evening for a lecture, exercise, visiting teachings, service, then family prayers and scriptures will not happen.

And here is where I miss Chieko Okazaki. If she were around she would be tossing me a life vest, and a Diet Coke, telling me that of course I cannot do it all. She might say this: “[Heather], I think that many Mormon women do not have clear boundaries for themselves. They feel a sense of confusion about who they are, because many competing voices lay claim to them and they try to accommodate them all…. Remember, a boundary has ‘yes’ on one side and ‘no’ on the other. A woman who never feels that she can say ‘no’ is lacking an important element of personal identity and, hence, personal safety. A woman who also feels that she can never say ‘yes’ has an equally serious problem in her inability to move beyond her own boundaries.” (https://ojs.lib.byu.edu/spc/index.php/…/article/download/391/369)

So I come away from General Conference with lots to think about: my role as a mother, a sister, a friend, a disciple, a part of a community. I know I will have to find my own answers, my own balance. Choices will be made and I will live with the consequences. Ultimately it is Elder Uchtodorf words that provide a lifeline: “We are all pilgrims, seeking God’s light as we journey on the path of discipleship.” And in my quiet moments, I can almost see the sun on the horizon.

 

How do you reconcile what feel like conflicting admonitions from Church leaders?  What talks felt like life preservers? What make you feel like walking the plank? 

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(Not?) Watching Conference

Ten years ago, I was a freshman at BYU. One Saturday morning, I was sitting in my Deseret Towers dorm room doing my homework like a studious, dedicated undergrad. My roommate burst into the room, “Are you going to watch conference with us?”

“Conference?”

“Yeah, it starts in like 5 minutes.”

“It’s Saturday. I’m doing my homework. I’ll watch tomorrow’s conference.”

Clearly there was a clash of cultures.

I had grown up in Illinois in a family that didn’t have satellite television. We had to drive 45 minutes to the stake center to watch General Conference and my family was not going to do that for more than one session of conference. We always watched Sunday morning because that’s when we’d normally go to church and also the prophet always spoke in that session. To be honest, I thought the Saturday sessions were special for people on the other side of the international date line: Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Indonesia, Asia, so that they could watch sessions on their “Sunday.” I thought it was really generous and internationally-aware of the Church to have conference sessions on Saturday. But they weren’t sessions for me. That’s what the Sunday morning session was for! Heck- even Sunday afternoon was obviously geared towards the saints in Hawaii because it was at a time so that they’d get to see it “Sunday morning,” too!

I remember continuing my homework, flabbergasted that there probably existed people that expected me to listen to 8 hours of conference in a weekend. It was Saturday! That day is for soccer games and piano recitals and math team conference matches!

Snoozefest

As an adult, I’ve tried to listen to more of the sessions, but now that my kids are getting a little older, I think I’m going to go back to just the Sunday morning session. I don’t have a lot of boundaries with Church activities: I go to as many ward potlucks and visiting teaching nights and ward park days that I can. I try to accept callings and bring meals to families that need them. But the General Conference weekends are my two weekends of “Nope!” I’ll do 1, maybe 2, but not 5 sessions of conference. This Saturday you’ll find me making Halloween costumes and hanging with my family.

How was General Conference weekend treated when you were a kid? Do you keep those same traditions? Do you watch more/less that you used to?

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Mormon Exceptionalism…Keeping Us From Being Exceptional

By Jenny

I can’t get through a Sunday at church without hearing it.  In fact, I have made a game for myself, counting how many times I hear it.  Testimony meeting is so pregnant with it that I struggle to know whether to go to church and win my game or to stay home and avoid the pit in my stomach.  It starts with a phrase like, “I am so grateful for the church because…”  Then it ends in a statement about why our church is so much better than the world, why our doctrine beats all other Christian doctrines, why we as God’s chosen people are far more enlightened and superior to all those people in the dark because they don’t have the gospel.

This is hard for me to write because it was hard for me to accept when I first started becoming aware of Mormon exceptionalism.  I don’t like speaking harshly and negatively about my culture.  I’ve lost a lot of friends for speaking boldly and I don’t want to lose more.  But I see a problem that is keeping us from progressing.  Mormon exceptionalism is keeping us from being truly exceptional.  This is especially the case in regards to women and equality in the church.

I find that when I am discussing women and the priesthood with people, the conversation doesn’t make it very far because of the big mountain of exceptionalism that is in our way.  I get it.  I’ve scaled that mountain.  It wasn’t easy.  At the bottom, all I could see was the looming mountain above me.  I thought that we as Mormons were the grandest thing around.  My mountain was my whole view, so I really thought it was everything.  But at the top, once you can see beyond the erroneous belief that Mormonism is better than every other religion, you can see all the other peaks for miles and miles.  Then you realize that your mountain is not everything, that it is only one mountain among many.

In regards to women and the priesthood, the mountain looks a little like these quotes from three women who have spoken out recently on the place for women in this church:

“So the LDS alone among all Christian religions assert that not only did Eve not sin, but she was rewarded for her courage and wisdom, and God was assuring her that, just as she fulfilled her role in the Great Plan of Happiness, Adam would step up to the plate, and he would perform his role in the Great Plan of Happiness, and that would entitle him to rule with her. This is absolutely revolutionary and astounding doctrine among all the Christianities!” [1]

This quote comes from an essay written by Valerie Hudson about why men and women have different roles.  I have to dissagree.  I don’t see anything revolutionary or astounding about our doctrine as opposed to other Christian doctrines.  In the temple narrative, Eve was not rewarded for her courage and wisdom, she was placed under Adam’s rule to hearken to his counsel as he hearkens to God’s.  Just because we tend to applaud Eve culturally despite our doctrinal language doesn’t mean that we have this phenomenal understanding of Eve and women’s roles compared to everyone else.

“…for years I’d searched the world over to find any organization—the largest governments and religions, multinational businesses, worldwide charities, major universities—where as many women had as much bonafide responsibility and authority as they do in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that I hadn’t been able to find even one.”[2]

This is a pretty big mountain that Sheri Dew has created.  So big in fact, that she can’t even see beyond it to see that her statement is ludicrous.  How many businesses in the world have female CEOs?  When is the last time our church had a female CEO?  You don’t have to look very far at all to see that other governments, religions, businesses, charities, and universities are doing better for their women than we are.  But you can’t look very far when this mountain blocks your view.

“I find it a little bit ironic that the world is trying to instruct the “poor LDS women,” who are so oppressed, and in the backwater, and if they could only come out into “enlightenment.”… Because I just don’t see where that enlightenment is.”

“I recently spoke at the United Nations and it was interesting because we are faith-based, I represented a faith-based organization. Because we are conservative morally, a lot of people thought that our doctrine about women and men was conservative. Far from being restrictive and conservative, and we sometimes get labeled that way, my contention is that the Church’s doctrine about the roles of women in the family, and the church, and the community, and the nation, and the temple and how men and women relate to each other and interplay and support each other and work together is the most moderate, and powerful, and enlightening and energizing doctrines that I know about. And if people truly understood it, it would blow their mind.[3]”

This quote comes from a recent talk given by Sharon Eubank at the FAIR Mormon symposium.  While I actually enjoyed the talk, and felt that it was great for raising the level of the conversation about women in the church, this part gave me that same familiar pit in my stomach that I often feel during testimony meeting.  I agree that we have some pretty great doctrines in our church.  I also agree with a major point that she made during this speech, that one of our problems is that our doctrine and our practice don’t always mesh.  But I highly doubt our doctrines would blow the minds of those poor simple fools out in the world, if they only understood them.  She may not see enlightenment out in the world, but that doesn’t mean that it does not exist.  It’s just that we have this big mountain in our way, blocking our view.  I am grateful at least that she is attempting to help us scale the mountain, by admitting that maybe we do need to change our language, maybe we don’t have everything right, maybe our practice does not always match our doctrine, maybe we could be better.   I just think that we will be able to climb this mountain faster without comparing ourselves to others.

I understand that most members don’t even realize how much we do this as a church.  If you haven’t noticed it, I challenge you to a game.  Sit through testimony meeting or read Sherri Dew’s book, and count how many times the claim is made that we are fine because we are better than other religions.  Or we are exceptional because we believe this and this that someone else doesn’t believe.  Just see if you can get through church without hearing about how much better we are than the rest of the world.  Once you notice it, you can’t stop noticing it.

This type of comparison is not a good argument for truthfulness in our church.  Truth can stand on its own.  Truth is only diminished when we have to qualify it by saying that we have more of it than someone else.  Comparison is an ineffective argument for why women in our church are fine and don’t need the priesthood.  I don’t care if we are better than Muslims or Catholics or anyone else.  I want to be better than we are.  I don’t want us to just think we are exceptional, I want to be exceptional.  The question we should be asking is not, who are we better than, but how can we be better that what we are right now?  I do think we have something unique and beautiful to offer the world, but who wants a gift given out of pity or pride?  The world in it’s vast array of faiths, ideologies, cultural constructs, knowledge, and experience also has a beautiful gift to offer us.  It is a magnificent view of eternity and a better understanding of our surroundings that we can only see from the top of our mountain.

And just so you know that I am not trying to be disingenuous toward women like Sheri Dew who are talking about women and the priesthood, and are even doing a lot of good in keeping this discussion alive and healthy, I will end with a quote by Sheri Dew.   “God rarely moves the mountains in front of us, but He always helps us climb them.”—Sheri Dew.  I have faith that our Heavenly Parents are helping us as a church to climb this mountain so that we can see a better view of what the world truly is, and how we fit into that view.

[1] Valerie Hudson http://mormonscholarstestify.org/1718/valerie-hudson-cassler

[2] Sheri Dew “Women and the Priesthood: What One Mormon Woman Believes.”

[3] Sharon Eubank http://blog.fairmormon.org/2014/08/12/best-of-fair-14-sharon-eubank-this-is-a-womans-church/

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International Series: Open Thread

“…And the Lord called His people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.”  Moses 7:18

As our current International Series comes to a close, we have had our hearts, minds and eyes opened to the wide spectrum of experience from our sisters and brothers across the world.  Like many of you, I read with great curiosity to learn of their struggles and successes, and how they find joy in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At the end of nearly every post, I found myself asking, “How can I better relate to this person’s experience? What can I do? How could I help?”

Several of our guest posters and commenters touched on the following themes: the way American members and missionaries behave in foreign countries, perspectives of relative privilege, language barriers, proximity from other members, church buildings and temples, relating to the cultural history of the community as it colors their experiences with the church, emotional, physical and linguistic isolation, American/Utah Mormon superiority complex, labeling/judging others in general, missionary efforts, humanitarian efforts and variety vs. uniformity.

We now open this thread to you to share any thoughts or ideas you have, or to suggest tangible solutions to issues raised. You might also respond to this question: “How can we build a worldwide Zion and what can I do?”

“… Dear Lord, prepare my heart to stand with thee on Zion’s mount, and nevermore to part.” Hymns 41

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International Series: Seeking Out and Relieving the Distressed

We are thrilled to feature new voices and new perspectives, many from people who are posting for the first time in English. Their voices have been missing from the conversation about gender and Mormonism, and their posts highlight the diverse experiences of LDS women throughout the global church.

Today’s post comes from Dave Dixon. Dave is the co-founder of No Poor Among Them, a podcast/blog devoted to exploring ways in which we as Latter-day Saints can eliminate poverty in the Church and in the world. He is also a board member for the Liahona Children’s Foundation, the happy husband of Jana, and happy father of two sons.

As the sun shines brightly over the city of Lugazi, Uganda, around 21 women are busily making hand-crafted jewelry for Musana Jewelry. All told, these artisans support themselves and 108 children. Melissa Sevy, Rebecca Burgon, and Kristen Wade are pleased with the progress the organization has made. Musana (which means “sunlight” in the local language of Luganda) was formed by these after seeing the difficulties of these women on a humanitarian trip to the area in 2009. The organization has since blossomed, and has helped many local women to flourish. I spoke with two of them: Tina and Harriet. The business is run locally by Tina, a local LDS primary president. Harriet, a hard-working artisan told me that working for Musana has enabled her to better provide for her children and allows her to receive proper medical care for issues resulting from HIV. Many of the local artisans are single mothers who have had a very difficult time in their lives. Musana not only provides employment for these women, but also trains them with classes in literacy, English, finance, business, and health. These women have ambitions to start their own businesses when they feel they are on solid enough footing, thus allowing other women to enter Musana’s business training program. Melissa told me in an interview that focusing on women is the key to economic development. When you pay a woman or a girl, they reinvest 90 percent of their income in their families, compared to 30-40 percent for men. Musana does a great job of connecting women all around the world. My wife Jana hosted a Musana market in her home, in which friends and neighbors bought some of the hand-crafted jewelry, watched a specialized thank-you video from the artisans of Musana, listened to Ugandan music, and ate some awesome Ugandan food (the peanut butter stew was really good).

(Right to left) Melissa Sevy, Harriet Ochieng, and Tina Kyambadde of Musana Jewelry

(Right to left) Melissa Sevy, Harriet Ochieng, and Tina Kyambadde of Musana Jewelry

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