Relief Society Lesson 17: Sealing Power and Temple Blessings

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Click for French Translation/Traduction en français

 

Don’t be fooled! This lesson plan can be a real challenge. I think that more often than not, an almost automated response to this lesson is to ask whoever is serving as the ward or branch genealogy specialist to teach this lesson. And likely, this person will be a genealogy bug and will swirl rings of testimony about how “easy” doing the admin side of genealogy is, topped with a dose or two of guilt for not doing the work, thereby paining us with reminders of our duty to those who have gone before us.

 

So. To be clear, I want to do more genealogy and family line temple work because I have a testimony of it. But I have deep empathy (and experience!) in not feeling motivated to do the work because of raw and aching relationships with genetically or legally “close” family members whom either I, or they, do not seek an ongoing familial relationship now— much less in the eternities. It seems I am not alone in this feeling. (plus, I thought the intro in the lesson seemed a bit pompous. I think that Joseph Fielding Smith’s story was never intended to be pompous—but rather a revelling in the miraculous. But still. The story did not address the real issue of apathy or even hurt in regard to dealing with the closeted skeletons of family history and temple work.) Therefore, as I am wont to do, I re-angle the lesson for those of us (ME) who have family issues.

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Young Women Lesson: Why are ordinances important in my life AND Why are temple ordinances important?

These two lessons, “Why are ordinances important in my life?” AND “Why are temple ordinances important?” go along nicely with the lessons about covenants and baptismal covenants.  You could easily couple this lesson plan with last year’s post on covenants for two to three weeks of rich discussion.

I think this lesson on ordinances (especially coupled with the one on covenants) has a lot of potential – first, I think it’s important to distinguish the difference between a covenant and an ordinance, as I think we often use the two interchangeably in our discourse.  It’s also an opportunity to revisit baptism and what it means to actually perform baptisms for the dead, especially as the youth are encouraged to both perform these ordinances and research the names of their ancestors to stand in proxy for them. I also think there’s a great opportunity to teach the young women, particularly the Laurels, about the ordinances in the temple in preparation for them going there.  While we want to maintain reverence for the temple and the sacred ordinances performed there, and to not reveal anything that we have covenanted not to, we do our girls a great disservice by not explicitly teaching them about the covenants they should prepare to make.  Especially with the mission age being lowered to 19, our girls need to be studying the temple and the sacred work that is performed there.  Talking about these ordinances and covenants in a reverent and appropriate atmosphere does not violate the sanctity of the temple; instead it shows that we respect the covenants that we hope they will make, and that we desire their spiritual success.  One helpful guide I found for teaching about the endowment can be found HERE.

On that note!  Let’s get this lesson going.

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“Let Her Enter”

I received my endowment last year on April 27th  (sans marriage or mission at age 21…. I was ready and didn’t take no for an answer) and, I must say, I loved it. Let me rephrase: I loved the spirit that I felt there. As a feminist, obviously certain things bothered me. And as a woman of the world, certain things confused (read: freaked) the hell out of me. Still, one of the first things I said to everyone (after whisper-shouting, “I’m in a cult!”) was, “I’m home.” Despite all the imperfections and oddities of the temple, I feel at home there. Everything feels so natural and heavenly. When I’m in the prayer circle, it’s an otherworldly experience and I feel angels surrounding me. I feel a strong spiritual camaraderie with the other Saints as we pray for ourselves and for others. When I converse with the Lord through the veil and enter into “His” presence, for me, it symbolically represents being worthy to enter the presence of my Heavenly Family. I imagine that’s how it’ll be when I literally pass through the veil–– I’ll converse with my Father and enter into the warm and teary-eyed embrace of my Savior and my dear Mother. She will be absent to me no more.

As June 8th has come and gone, I thought about something: Had I been a member on April 27th, 1978, none of this would have happened. As a Black woman I would, literally, be on the outside looking in. Having gone through the temple, it breaks my heart to think about that. For all my feminist misgivings I have about the temple (the unreciprocated promise of obedience, the wording of the initiatory where my eternal blessings are attached to my non-existent husband, the silence of Eve after a certain point in the ceremony, etc.), I have a testimony of the temple. So it pains my heart to think that just 36 years ago, I would not have been able to receive those blessings.

I think of Jane Manning James, particularly. She was an African-American woman who traveled all the way to where the Saints settled in Illinois and lived with the Prophet Joseph Smith. She then made her way to the Utah Territory where she began to petition to receive her endowment. She petitioned the First Presidency multiple times to no avail. In the end, a special ceremony in the temple was performed in which she was sealed as a servant to Joseph Smith and his family. Sister James wasn’t even allowed in the temple when that “sealing” was performed. My heart aches thinking of Jane James as she faithfully pleaded with the Brethren to receive her endowment, but was denied every single time. Simply because she was black.

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My heart aches thinking of all the black pioneers before 1978 who joined the Church, but were not able to be sealed to their loved ones forever. My heart aches thinking of the countless number of fathers who couldn’t even bless and heal their own children because of their race. My heart aches reading this account from Darius Gray (a renowned Black Mormon pioneer who joined the LDS Church in 1964):

“I remember being in a Sacrament meeting, pre-1978, and the sacrament was being passed and there was special care taken by this person that not only did I not officiate, but I didn’t touch the sacrament tray. They made sure that I could take the sacrament, but that I did not touch the tray and it was passed around me. That was awfully hard, considering that often times those who were officiating were young men in their early teens, and they had that Priesthood. I valued that Priesthood, but it wasn’t available.”

As a woman, not being able to pass the sacrament because of my gender is hard enough, but to not be able to even touch the tray that represents the body and blood of the Savior? My eyes fill with tears at the thought. I can’t even imagine being a Black member of the Church before 1978. To be denied receiving my temple recommend simply because I was born in the wrong skin color would have given me great sorrow that I can’t even comprehend.

Despite whatever feelings you have about the temple and the priesthood, there is an amount of thankfulness that should be given, as those blessings would have never been denied to you. If you are of African ancestry, be so thankful for modern revelation and that He will send more down to guide us. And especially as women, we must all be thankful for June 8th, because if that day has shown us anything else, it is that there is hope for our future in the Church. Just as the beginning of equality for African-American Latter-day Saints happened on that day, our day of equality for female Latter-day Saints will soon come upon us. It inevitably will.

Until that day, I will celebrate June 8th. I will be thankful for the lifting of the Priesthood Restriction. I will be thankful for the great blessing it is for me to perform temple ordinances. I will continue to feel the strength of my ancestors as I complete their temple work. I know they will bless me and thank me for enabling them to progress in the Spirit World. I am the link that will bind the generations of my family. I know their spirits wept with joy on June 8th, 1978. They knew that eventually somewhere down the line, one of their posterity would embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And they knew that June 8th, 1978 would provide the opportunity for me, one of their posterity, to be the link that binds. Without that miraculous revelation, they would not receive the blessings that they have now received. And neither would I. On that most sacred day, the Priesthood was, once again, restored.

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I know you are, but what am I?

I have two young kids, and they’re of an age when potty language and name calling happen all the time.  “Poop” is both the funniest word in their vocabulary and the worst insult.  My daughter laughs about making piles of pretend poop at home, but complains of being called a poo-poo-head at preschool.  It feels awful to be called something you’re not, and the immediate impulse when that happens is to correct it in the strongest possible terms.  The typical playground response when I was a kid was, “I know you are, but what am I?”

The reason name calling hurts is because it touches on the most core belief we have – who we are.  My daughter does not believe she is a poo-poo-head and is indignant at being called that, but when someone uses that term I wonder if there’s a flicker of a question about who she is, if not that.  The question is troubling, and terribly insistent.  For her, a soothing word from mom, dad, or a teacher is all that’s needed to answer it until the next insult comes along.

Gradually, I hope all those soothing assurances will accumulate to form a solid self esteem for her.  She’ll know she is an inherently and irrevocably worthy human soul with great potential, loved by Heavenly and earthly parents.  Of course, a healthy self image won’t protect her from ever being hurt by a word, and she’ll be exposed to views, ideas, and experiences that may challenge her beliefs about her identity.

For me, the greatest assurances and the greatest challenges to my identity have come from the Church.  From singing “I am a Child of God” as a toddler, repeating the Young Women theme about being a daughter of God, and my own study of the scriptures and sacred music, I’ve acquired a solid self image of a person who is inherently and irrevocably worthy, with great potential, and loved by Heavenly Parents.  But sometimes things I’m taught at Church also challenge that self image.  And sometimes it’s the things I don’t hear at Church that challenge me most.

For example, I heard about the roles, responsibilities, and power of the priesthood in the last General Conference, and I also heard I’m an appendage to it.  Arms and legs are important and valuable, but they’re not what give people their identity.  In the temple men covenant to God, but the covenant I made was to a man, to hearken to him.  I pray daily and sing weekly praises to Father in Heaven, but I’m at a loss as to how to worship my Mother in Heaven.  I see how men are heirs to Father in Heaven.  I know who they are, but who am I?

I believe I’m a child of God and that Jesus suffered and died for me as much as for anyone.  But the lack of acknowledgement of Mother in Heaven, the asymmetrical temple covenants, the possibility of eternal polygamy, and the withholding of ordination could lead a woman to believe she’s a lesser creation than men.  I know that’s not true.  But I still get that flicker of a terrible, insistent question: Who am I, if not that?  I have no answer, and I can’t be consoled by a soothing word.  So instead of letting the question trouble me, I snuff it out quickly.

Tell me, why should I have to, over and over?

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Birth/Rebirth: Initiatory as re-birth

Birth stories have a strange fascination for me, but I have also found them to be a moment of exclusion.  I do not have any children, and as a Mormon woman nearing thirty virtually every woman I associate with outside of work has a birth story.  They usually come up at baby showers, play dates, or Mommy and Me.  When one woman begins to reflect the others chime in, telling their own stories and sharing (I presume) a sense of community and common experience.  Naturally, I have nothing to add to this conversation, any more than I have anything to say about potty training or tantrums or motherhood in general.  Often, trying to deflect the sense of awkwardness, a mother will jokingly ask me if all their talk is working like birth control, a sally that is kindly meant but really not my favorite joke.

For all these reasons, when the idea came up on the back list to do this series I said that I would be supportive of others but would not be contributing myself.  Not being part of the mommy club can be one of the hardest parts about being a Mormon woman.  The other bloggers encouraged me to find a different way to contribute something about rebirth in a non-literal sense to provide a different perspective.

I decided to write about initiatory as an experience of rebirth, a new beginning. 

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June 2013 Visiting Teaching Message: Joy in Family History

Let me guess: You surfed onto this site looking for a way to make this month’s Visiting Teaching message interesting.

 

Now, I don’t mean to be disrespectful towards family history temple work. But it is a topic that comes up rather often, (I have written about here and here , oy!). So- either I get hit with the family history thing way too often in the Lesson Plan lottery, or the spirit is trying to get me to do work. Either way, looking up my family tree is not new. And clearly the topic can be hard to address and re-address, especially because it is a topic that so often hits news headlines.

 Out of interest, Mormons are not alone in proxy work. There is evidence that the Coptic Church practiced baptisms for the dead in the 3rd Century C.E., but ended as it was decided that those who are deceased are not privy to receiving Eucharist ordinances. (1) Mandaeans also practice proxy baptism, but only on a small scale. (2) But, by and large, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are the primary group that performs proxy ordinances, likely because it is taught to us so very often as a part of applied and real, church piety. There is some evidence that the LDS church members practiced proxy work for the living in the early days of the church- likely for other church members or relatives that were unable to migrate to Nauvoo (3) But because there is also evidence that not everyone enjoyed being proxy-baptised into another church, the practices was changed for the dead. It seems to me that the long lists of unrelated proxy temple work that were completed and created controversy furthered this practice to focus only on family history. Perhaps that is why there is such an emphasis in the church today; because if we do the work of our ancestors who have dead, we offend fewer of the living.  

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