Sisters Speak: Countering Androcentric and Limiting Gender Messages Our Children Hear at Church

 

by Sheila Rhodes

Dear Exponent readers, the Sisters Speak column of an upcoming Exponent II magazine will focus on the topic of raising empowered daughters and sons in the face of sometimes limiting gender teachings at church.  I am looking for brief (one or two paragraph) responses to the question below, and I will email some of you commenters to ask if I can quote you in the magazine. For those that would like to respond privately, please email me at carolinekline1 at gmail dot com. 

Church teachings can be enormously empowering for young people. Knowing that we are children of God, that we all have divine potential, that our Heavenly Parents and Jesus care deeply about us  — these are, I believe, healing and affirming messages for kids and adults.

I do worry, however, about other androcentric and limiting teachings regarding gender and how they will affect my kids, particularly my daughter. What will she make of incessant references to Heavenly Father (with no mention of Heavenly Mother)? What will she make of lesson after lesson about prophets and priesthood, with all examples and images focusing on males? Will it hurt her, as it does me, to sing hymns every week that virtually erase her existence as a woman? Will Young Women lessons constantly frame the end goal of her life as finding someone to “take her to the temple”? What will it do to her psyche to hear messages about men presiding in the home and church? Will she begin to question whether God loves her as much as God loves males when she sees boys only being allowed to perform priesthood tasks?  Will she reign in her professional dreams and desires in order to conform to church ideals of proper womanhood?

Perhaps not. Perhaps she’ll soar above these messages and never let them hurt her sense of self or constrain her. I hope so. And I am determined to do whatever I can to help her soar above them.

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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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Retreat with Us: Registration opens June 7

Each year, I look forward to the “beginning of fall” signaled by fresh air of New Hampshire at the Exponent II retreat in September.  The setting is beautiful, the discussions are full of heart and soul, the keynote speaker is illuminating, and the talent show is hilarious.

Retreat with us this year! September 11 – 13, 2015
Barbara C. Harris Conference Center

Registration opens June 7, 2015 – Spread the Word

Workshops to include: improving your Relief Society experience, the Divine Feminine, serving others, ordaining women, and more!

Questions? Email retreat@exponentii.org.

 

FionaThe Exponent II Board is pleased to announce that our keynote speaker at this year’s retreat will be Fiona Givens.

Fiona Givens was born in Nairobi, educated in British convent schools, and converted to the LDS church in Frankfurt. She graduated from the University of Richmond with degrees in French and German, and received an M.A. in European History while co-raising the last of her six children.  Fiona directed the French Language programme at Patrick Henry High School, in Ashland, Virginia. Besides education, she has worked in translation services, as a lobbyist, and as communications director for a non-profit. Her writings appear in Exponent II, LDS Living and Journal of Mormon History. Fiona is a frequent speaker on podcasts and at conferences from Time out for Women to Sunstone and Women’s Retreats. A longtime collaborator in the books of her husband, Fiona and Terryl have recently co-authored two books: The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life and The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith.   Fiona currently resides in Virginia.

 

 

 

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On Blessings

In Gilead, a favorite novel of mine, a Congregational minister named John Ames recalls his life in a letter to his young son.  Part autobiography and part meditation on ultimate questions, the book contains some interesting thought on blessings.  As a minister, Ames has bestowed countless blessings, but his first experiencing of blessing was with kittens.

“I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand.  Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing.  It stays the mind”  He and his lifelong friend Boughton had wetted the kittens brows with water to baptize them.  He wondered what they had done to them, musing, “It still seems to me to be a real question.”[1]

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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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Sacred Music: Eliza R Snow and A Mother There

Eliza and MotherThis image is one that will be in the upcoming EXPONENT II COLORING BOOK (look for it later this year).

It is Eliza Roxcy Snow writing her famous hymn: “O My Father”.  Eliza had many roles and callings in the early church including 2nd President of the Relief Society, sister to the Prophet Lorenzo Snow, plural wife of the Prophet Joseph Smith and she was called the Prophetess of the Church by some.  She was also known throughout the region as a poet.

“In Nauvoo, she gained distinction as a Mormon poet [through her] featured [work] in local newspapers … and was called “Zion’s Poetess”.  She wrote 10 of the hymns in our current hymn book including some of my favorites:

  • How Great the Wisdom and the Love
  • In Our Lovely Deseret (sung with great fervor by the Elders on my mission)
  • The Time is Far Spent (another beloved song from mission days)
  • Truth Reflects Upon Our Senses

And, of course, the hymn she is perhaps most known for: O My Father.  This is a beautiful hymn written in 1845, a year after Joseph’s death, directed to our heavenly parents.  This direction is precicely what makes it so well known – it names both our Father and our Mother in Heaven.

Today on Mother’s Day, I pay tribute to both of these women who represent different kinds of mothers.

1. Heavenly Mother created our spirits and gave us life in a heavenly sense. In an earthly reflection of this creation, our mother’s here give life to our physical bodies. I honor the mother of my spirit and the mother of my body.  My earthly mother is good and kind and caring.  She gave me my body and has stayed near me on life’s journey to guide me and love me. This gift has come at a personal sacrifice to her.  Earthly mothers everywhere give of their body, blood, and heart to bring us into the world. A beautiful calling.

2. Eliza Snow did not bare children, but she has been a women of great influence and mentored many.  She used her spiritual gifts well and did great things for the Kingdom of God. This emulation of womanhood can also be called Mother. I honor Eliza, this pioneer Mother who went before me.  I also honor the many women who mentored me and loved me now. I consider them mothers to my spiritual journey.

Today,  I love both “the mother who bore me and the many mothers who bare with me.”

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