“Will you be moving your records into the branch?”
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.Read More
The recent essays produced by the Church on plural marriage have turned my thoughts inward to reflect on my own journey and relationship with the concept of plural marriage. I have especially ached for the young girls who married Joseph, as I have thought about the young, naïve girl I was at the age of fourteen. I still remember my first pivotal moment with polygamy. I had been reading The Work and the Glory series over the summer and I was struggling through the one in which plural marriage was being introduced in Nauvoo. I’m sure I had already known about plural marriage before then. Even at that tender age, I was terrified that I would die after I got married and would then have to share my future husband with another woman. Yes, I was fourteen!
But now, sitting in my room, tears streaming down my cheeks, I first came into contact with the pain of women who did have to share their husbands with other women. In a fictional book, written by a man who had never experienced that fear from a female perspective, I began my wrestle with a concept that I was too young to fully understand. Obviously, The Work and the Glory towed the line of the church in its sympathetic portrayal of Joseph. My pain and agony over this concept were reflected in the characters that rejected plural marriage and lost their eternal rewards. I thought my feelings were proof of my unfaithfulness toward God. I did not want to be one of the unfaithful ones. But I also didn’t know how I could ever feel good about polygamy. What a heavy burden for a fourteen-year-old girl to bear alone in her room.
But not all fourteen-year-old girls got to wrestle with hypothetical ideas alone in their rooms. Some had to do so face to face with someone they believed was a prophet of God with authority to make his word God’s word. What was their wrestle like? Did they go through the tortuous battle to work it out in their minds and hearts like I did? Did they cry and scream and rage against God the way I did? Did they spend hours on their knees, pleading with God to understand something that didn’t make sense to them? And in the end, did they humbly give in, thinking that a prophet of God must surely know best, that their own feelings and struggles meant nothing compared to his understanding? Did they give in because their desire to be righteous outweighed their own sense of logic and love?
That’s how it was for me. Worn out from my raging struggle, with red eyes and tears dried to my face, I looked in my mirror. I thought about my grandma who had divorced at an old age and had died without being sealed to anyone. “Okay God,” I said, trying to muster the courage I needed to do this. “I will share my husband (yes, I was fourteen!), but only if it will help my grandma to have someone to be sealed to.” And that was that. I had accepted the principle of plural marriage. It felt good. Just like the early saints, I had passed the test. I had proven faithful. Thinking back on that fourteen-year-old girl that I was, I can’t imagine any scenario in which loving Heavenly Parents would be okay with a thirty-eight-year old asking such a young, innocent girl to marry him. The legality of it makes no difference to me because man’s laws are not God’s laws. I believe God’s laws are meant to protect us.
A decade later I was no longer an innocent fourteen-year-old girl as I searched for a greater understanding of plural marriage in the early days of the church. I learned about Joseph’s deceitfulness to his wife, the secrecies, denials, lies, coercion of young girls, and the rejection of those who didn’t comply. I was no longer a naïve girl who wanted to be faithful at any cost to myself, but I still wanted the church to come off victorious. I wanted to believe that God had commanded plural marriage and that Joseph Smith had acted in secrecy only because people wouldn’t understand that this came from God.
But one major thing had changed in my life by this point. My understanding of God had expanded. I now believed in a God who loved beyond anything I had ever imagined as a fourteen-year-old girl. I no longer believed in a God who asked His children to commit immoral acts like cheating on a spouse or killing a son in order to test their faithfulness to Him. I believed in Heavenly Parents who love far beyond the love I have even for my own children. If I would not tease my own children in such a horrendous manner just to be sure that they are true and faithful to me, why would loving Heavenly Parents do that to us?
This new understanding of God left me with two choices. I could continue to believe in a God who would ask His prophet to lie and cheat on his wife, coerce young girls more than half his age to marry him, and to set up a system that would cause immense pain for women whom this same God calls His daughters, or I could accept that Joseph was mistaken. This was not the God I believed in anymore, so I had to accept that Joseph was wrong. That doesn’t mean that I can’t be gentle and forgiving toward a man with very human weaknesses. I still love and respect him as a man with a vision to build the kingdom of God! I can even accept that he caused himself to believe that polygamy was part of that. Perception can change much easier than we tend to think, especially if it can ease a sense of guilt or sorrow that we are feeling. My perception had also allowed me at one time to fit polygamy into my understanding of the kingdom of God in order to ease the pain of being one of the unfaithful ones.
Since I have discarded polygamy from my understanding of what the kingdom of God looks like, I have discovered a more loving peaceful kingdom to dwell in. It is a place where young girls are no longer victims of Joseph’s possibly well-intentioned, yet ill-fated marriage construct. It is a place where my daughters will not have to live with the agony of thinking that they might need to share their husbands for eternity, while fearing that their own feelings make them unfaithful. It is a place where God the Mother and God the Father love all their children equally, and They would never command a man to hurt their daughters in any way or for any reason. It is a place where our Heavenly Parents do not see our disdain for the practice of plural marriage as unfaithfulness to them. They are proud of us for speaking up about our feelings
I realize that it is hard to bring Joseph down to the level of a man with natural weaknesses when we have revered and deified him for so long. It is especially hard under scrutiny from the rest of the world. They can’t possibly understand what this means for us as Mormons. Our church is experiencing growing pains. I know personally how this painful process is going to feel for us because I have gone through it in my own faith over the last few years. But there is so much beauty and goodness on the other side of this.
My hope would be that Joseph himself has already repented of his own sins in regards to plural marriage. Why can’t we also repent of it as a church? Why can’t we stop allowing young girls to be his victims? Why can’t we say Joseph was wrong, we have made progress since then, and now we know better? If we could accept Joseph as a man with sexual appetites and imperfect understandings of God’s ways, then our understanding of a more perfect, loving God can expand. But if we continue to accept that Joseph’s claims of plural marriage came from God, then I’m afraid the God we believe in is limited in His ability to love, to parent wisely, and to give moral directives that will help us to be happy. What will we claim in the next chapter of Mormonism, a limited prophet or a limited God?
What was your experience trying to understand and relate plural marriage to your life? How do you feel about it now?Read More
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For the lds.org lesson plan see HERE
How can I invite others to come unto Christ?
When Alma was baptizing the members of his new society, he taught them about the covenants they made:
What does it mean to stand as a witness of God?
In the last conference, Elder David R. Bednar shared a story of his young sons when they were playing one day. The younger one got hurt and the older brother was trying to comfort him. He bandaged up his little brothers wound. When he realized how happy it made him, he wanted to share that happiness with his friends, so he took the band-aids outside to share. Elder Bednar relates this to us, because it is in our nature to want to share things that give us happiness and comfort with others.Read More
“…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.
On 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?Read More
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: