December 2011 Visiting Teaching Message: An Extensive Sphere of Action

Whenever Elder M. Russell Ballard speaks, I instinctively believe that he is not addressing me. More often than not, his orations are fixed upon those who participate in traditional family roles, with particular emphasis on women only in the role of a wife and or mother. As a result, his expressions are antiquated (at best) which makes this month’s message an exercise in irony when we consider the included Ballard quotes. If we are to believe that we, as women, have “an extensive sphere of action” as in the title, then why is the projection of womanhood is limited to only “lead the women of the world”? Why is the influence limited to family prayer and church callings?  Why deflect Eliza R. Snow’s influence in organizing early Relief Societies by stating that she “assisted” bishops in creating local Relief Society branches? Cannot righteous women lead men as well? The message is an example of typical church rhetorical contradiction, wherein the role of “righteous women” is declared as limitless, yet consistently cornered to an area that only includes traditional gender roles and reserves the influence of women to children, or other women. So, in embracing the intention of the title, I have a story for you:

As a child, my mother instructed me that men would not take women seriously. Women’s influence was only within the home, so if I was to– heaven forbid—- need mechanical repairs, it was best to find a man, any man, to speak on my behalf. I absolutely believed this when I was a girl in my mother’s house. I believed that my influence was only within the walls of my own home, or with other women. I believed I could not ever be taken seriously in a man’s world, because my mother taught me that my influence was dutifully limited within the constraints of the walls of my own home. So I grew up. I went to university. I got a job. I even bought my own car. Then I moved into my own apartment by myself. I was independent, and I glowed within my own walls; I thrived in my sphere.

And then, my car needed repairs. I was convinced that I could not speak to a mechanic because he would not take me seriously. I was taught to believe that honest communication with a man would have me made a fool as it was out of my sphere of influence. So I dropped off the car, and anxiously waited for the mechanic to ring me at work. I asked the man in the office next to mine to speak to the mechanic when he called to discuss my car, thinking that as a gentleman, he would do so. But he said no. NO. No? I was stunned as thoughts of abandonment raced through my mind. “But… mechanics …. and… and… they don’t take girls seriously!” I said. Did he not know this? Did his mother not teach him that women’s sphere did not extend to the land of auto-mechanics? Apparently not. “You need to learn to take responsibility for yourself,” he said. “You need to learn this someday. It’s better to start now.”  

Before I could process this out-of-sphere responsibility, the phone rang. I was scared. And angry! Why did this man abandon me? When I bought my car, although I paid for it on my own, I took a male friend with me to the car lot. This was man’s world! I did my job well; I even had my own office space wherein my influence thrived. My apartment was primed to be an RM marriage magnet. But now…I was faced with people. Men, outside of my sphere, and I was alone! Even though I was living in “the mission field”, I had never thought to prepare for this. I felt utterly unempowered in this sphere, just as my mother had taught me. The phone rang again. I picked it up and held it to my office mate, believing his gentlemanly core would understand that this was not my sphere of influence…

He promptly turned his back and walked out.

Thank God.

Because I did it. I took the call. I “handled” the mechanic! Most importantly, I learned that my sphere, my responsibility, my influence– none of it was or is limited to within my own walls or the walls of tradition. If I had continued to choose to delude myself into constructing false walls of self restraint, and believed that my influence was only found within a traditional role, then my personal and (extensive) sphere of influence would never be realised. Nor would I be able to influence and bless those around me if I did not comprehend who I really am. That was one of many days in my life when I was humbled to better understand in fullness that I am a daughter of Elohim. And when the daughters of Elohim are empowered by the spirit, our influence for good and righteousness knows no walls; our sphere of righteousness and service is limitless. Our influence is infinite.

The echoing impact of women, as daughters of God, is eternal. Because of this, it can never be limited to traditional boundaries. I have learned this time and time again in work, in friendship, at home, even on facebook. I have an extensive, eternal sphere of action. All women do. We all have an extensive sphere of action. From the message:

Sister [Eliza R.] Snow taught: “If any of the daughters and mothers in Israel are feeling in the least circumscribed [limited] in their present spheres, they will now find ample scope for every power and capability for doing good with which they are most liberally endowed. … President Young has turned the key to a wide and extensive sphere of action and usefulness.”

 

Now, as December tempts us to forgo the message in light of the prophet’s Christmas message served with a side of gingerbread, I will tarry in the spirit of Christmas. In this I combine the themes of “an extensive sphere of influence” as well as the habitual reinforcement of women’s sphere being limited to tradition, by quoting Chieko N. Okazaki:

Ask yourself some questions about traditions. Are there some traditions in your Relief Society or elder’s quorum that perhaps were very functional a few years ago but just aren’t meeting people’s needs now? Are there some things we need to do in our wards because that’s the way we’ve always done them? Do we have stereotypes and attitudes about things that are left over from other days? Could the work move forward more effectively if we rethought some of those traditions?

Are there traditions of the fathers –and of the mothers- that represented goodness in times past but that may no longer be appropriate? Yes, there certainly are.

Are there some traditions that are still goods ones and to which we should cling even more tightly? Absolutely!

How then, do we tell them apart? Or will the prophet and our priesthood leaders tell us? I think it is inherent in the wonderful law of agency that God doesn’t do our work for us and he doesn’t except us to do each other’s work. The prophet’s job is to receive revelation for the Church, not for the individuals. Our job is to receive revelation for ourselves, not for the church. We have a responsibility to take our questions to God and struggle with those questions in the process of receiving revelation.

Will my personal direction from God be the same as your’s? I don’t think so. We’re individuals. God deals with us as individuals. This is the same God who made not just apples but pears and apricots and persimmons and grapes. He likes diversity. He invented it.   (Chieko N. Okazaki, Disciples, p 50-52)

At Christmastime, like in the church, we tend to fall into tradition as a matter of course. The Christmas thing can be fun, after all– bring on the eggnog and I dare you to eat fruit cake! But as outlined in Okazaki’s quote, as well as the 1 Corinthians 12:4–18 reference included in this month’s formal message, we each own a personal cornucopia of gifts, life experiences and skills. We are unique individuals. Traditions are improved, amended, and developed. We are rightfully nostalgic about some of the old, but we need to consistently embrace and seek the liberation of the new. 

So, should your cornucopia appear untraditional, or should the fruits of your labours appear different to mine, or should you prefer or choose to collect gifts that I do not understand or could not imagine… I beg you: please share. I need your diversity. I need your sphere of understanding. I seek to learn of you and your traditions so I can be liberated by sharing in your diversity. Your sphere is extensive. Don’t be bound by walls of limitations. Share with me, so we can nurture and develop each other.  Share with the sisters you visit teach. Ask them to share with you. Liberate yourself from the walls around you so your influence is righteously, and rightfully shared for the good of all people.

 

And if you’ve never had an Australian Christmas Pudding, try it.

 

How can you encourage the sisters you visit teach to recognise and develop their spheres of influence? Have you experienced a challenge in your sphere of influence wherein you developed formidably, almost as if by fate? Have you ever had an Australian Christmas pudding?

 

Australian Christmas Pudding with Apricots and Chocolate

1 Cup flour
1 tsp baking soda
125 grams butter (about ½ cup)
½ cup chopped pecans
2 Tbs. Brandy (get over it) or Orange liquor
1 cup firmly packed stale white breadcrumbs
600 grams mixed, dried fruit (I like cranberries, apricots and some citrus)
3 eggs, beaten
½ cup sugar
100 grams dried apricots
100 grams dark chocolate chips
 
Sift flour and soda. Mix all ingredients. Place in a pudding steamer (or calico bag tied with string). If using a steamer, place in a saucepan with water half way up the sides of the steamer. (If using calico bag, hang bag in a saucepan above the water). Cover saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil for 3 ½ hours adding more boiling water as necessary to maintain water level. (for a more developed flavour, soak dried fruit in brandy overnight before mixing)
 
Remove pudding from water and let stand 10 minutes. Remove, glaze and serve. If making more than a day in advance or to develop the flavour, hang pudding in calico in a doorway (or otherwise) to dry. When ready to serve, steam pudding for 30 minutes, then remove and let stand for 10 minutes. Prepare glaze of 2 Tbs. golden syrup (Corn syrup will do in a pinch) and 1 Tbs. Grand mariner or similar orange liquor. Brush glaze over pudding. Serve warm with whipped cream.   

Spunky

Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.

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26 Responses

  1. Jessica says:

    I feel as though so many members of the church are just waiting for the revelation to come from a leader. And that is such a shame. I read the Doctrine and Covenants earlier this year and my scripture journal records how many times members are told to “seek and to find”. But even in the early days of the restoration it seems that members would seek out Joseph Smith to answer their questions. I excuse their behavior since it was all so new, but now we should know better. Yet I know very few people who I would consider to be trying to diligently seek truth on a regular basis. I think that change often comes from the members and their prayers and questions that change the “official” position of the church. I just tell myself it is changing truth is coming back and more is being added to the general vocabulary- the messages are getting better, although very schizophrenic about gender.

    And I think it was on of Satan’s best lies to tell women that they had less power. I cringe when I think of how much society has lost in goodness and progress as a result.

    • TopHat says:

      Also, one of my favorite things about the Doctrine and Covenants is that every revelation comes from someone requesting one. The sections don’t start out as, “I the Lord wanted to say something.” They start with, “My servant ____ asked and this is what I say.”

    • spunky says:

      Jessica,
      I love your comment!! Your points echo the traditional brilliant feminist (French, from memory) argument in regard to women obtaining education. If men are to lead the world, yet are reared and often educated by women who have been refused an education because of gender, then as a society, we can only wallow without progression. It is just as you say– when women are uneducated, not allowed to develop revelation and just generally restrained from personal development, then society, the church– everything and everyone fails to develop in fullness. That restraint can only be of the advesary; I do not believe that God would have us bound as a matter of tradittion.

      Thank you for pointing this out.

  2. CatherineWO says:

    Spunky,
    As usual, your words are moving and profound, and I can’t wait to try out your pudding recipe. I’m sure I can adapt it to be gluten free.;)
    I have a letter route for VT, and I struggle every month to know what to write to four women who have very little to do with the Mormon church, but this message is one I can definitely pass on to them (in the way you have presented it) and hope that they will apply it in their lives. What woman doesn’t need a dose of this?
    Thank you.

    • spunky says:

      Thank you so much, CatherineWO. I had a similar VT calling in my last branch, it is difficult. I never even met one of the women as she was a 3 hour drive from me. Distance and apathy can make visiting teaching awkward, but it still was very, very rewarding to contact them every month.

      I am excited for you to try this with gluten-free breadcrumbs! I have a gluten-free pudding recipe (I have not tired it) that calls for soy flour in place of the white flour- I would assume that the soy protien would lessen the chance that this could be crumbly, but I am a coconut nut, so am thinking that this year I might give it a go with coconut flour. (I am gluten-intolerant, so can handle small amounts if it is the only gluten I eat for the day). Hanging it to dry and ripen is fun; Americans- Mormon or not– often seem utterly confused when they see basically a cake that smells slightly of liquor hanging in one of the doorways.

      • CatherineWO says:

        Ah, yes, coconut flour would work well, I think. I hadn’t used it before trying your muffin recipe last month (which was beyond delicious, I might add).

      • kmillecam says:

        I haven’t tried it myself, but I think that a better 1-for-1 gluten-free replacement of white flour (or another regular flour) is almond flour or rice flour. Coconut flour is extremely dense and has a high amount of fiber., so if you use it you may end up with the need to add more eggs to fluff it back up again (which is delicious, so I say go for it!)

  3. LovelyLauren says:

    This came at a really good time for me. I am 21 and married and often feel that my husband is much more capable than me about things like cars and bills and stuff. Part of this is just because he’s a bit older than me and has lived alone longer. Lately it’s occurred to me that I CAN do things like putting air in the car tires and refilling the oil and paying our bills and hanging pictures and rearranging furniture. It sounds really silly, but learning that I can do all of those things (and should, if I need to) has been really empowering for me.

    It’s only a man’s world if you let it be one.

  4. EmilyCC says:

    I love what you’ve turned this message into, Spunky! It actually makes me sad that this lesson probably won’t get taught much because so many VT visits in December are dropping off some cookies.

    I wish the Ensign had used Chieko’s quote for this–it’s so perfect.

    • spunky says:

      Thanks, EmilyCC!
      I nearly considered just ignoring the message and doing something overtly Christmasy, but decided to challenge tradition instead. And Chieko perfectly challenged the ideology of restrained, traditional female roles in a way that is inclusive of the spirit, as usual. Perhaps we can challenge the tradition of brushing aside the December VT message in lieu of a plate of cookies? But I do so very much like cookies….

  5. April says:

    Wow, Spunky, I have to hand it to you for creating an uplifting message from such problematic source material. I become so exasperated hearing men remind women that they can be leaders of other women, but not of them, personally, since they happen to be men and above such womanly leadership.

  6. Maureen says:

    I love your and Chieko’s view on diversity. I share it in my own way. I love seeing diversity in the world, including the diversity of views and beliefs. And I love how that makes others them.

    I really appreciated reading this Spunky. I love the Spirit I felt when reading it. Though I feel my spheres of influence are small and at a disadvantage because of my disabilities, I’ve been coming to terms with that and am working to see what I can do with what I have. Who knows, maybe I will end up expanding my spheres in ways I never imagined.

  7. Miri says:

    I almost wish I did Visiting Teaching so I could give some lucky women this message and a plate of cookies. Love the post and the quote and the comments, they’re all wonderful.

  8. Gentlerart says:

    A smart woman knows the extent of her influence is enormous but she doesn’t have to “men bash” or in this case “Apostle bash” to convince others of her potential. She just needs to enjoy her days doing what she feels prompted to do, and perform miracles wherever she treads. Her fruits will proclaim her strength. This past month I have installed a wood stove, redid the plumbing in two bathrooms, taught some beautiful young women to sing a Christmas carol a capella, and sent out all my Christmas cards with nary a stamp! Not bad for a 63 year old. 🙂

    • spunky says:

      I am confused as to what you think is an “apostle bash”? Because I don’t fit the typical mould and say so? That seems to be exactly what you express in your message, that you are not a typical 63-year-old, and are quite happy about that. Same for me. Well, I am not 63, but still, I am not the traditional Mormon woman, and I am quite happy about that. Nary a man-bashing or apostle-bashing in sight.

  9. Gentlerart says:

    “antiquated expressions”, “typical church rhetorical contradiction” are expressions that sound negtive and critical to me, especially considering the Ward and Branch leaders are being counselled to “ask the sisters because they have insights and understanding” that the Elders may be unaware of. There is nothing antiquated about Elder Ballards expressions. I understand your perspective may be different, and appreciate the vision you are expressing. I agree that we all have different circumstances and that is why we are to take the general statements and seek personal revelation as to how we are to live these principles of enlightenment. We are capable of accomplishing whatever we set our hearts to do. Personally, the expression “that can’t be done” is all I need to hear to put something on my to do list. Who needs to “lead men”? Let’s set our sights on our highest potential and strive to become who Heavenly Father knows we are. That sounds much more appealing to me.

    • Spunky says:

      From what document do you quote the below? I have never heard it and am quite interested.

      the Ward and Branch leaders are being counselled to “ask the sisters because they have insights and understanding”

      Also in regard to:

      Let’s set our sights on our highest potential and strive to become who Heavenly Father knows we are.

      That is exactly what I said in this post, perhaps you should re-read it.

      Your comment is critical of my post, my post is critical of the limitations worded in the formal VT message. Should you feel strongly about not criticising, perhaps you should consider censuring yourself rather than criticising the analytically-minded.

  10. Gentlerart says:

    Dear Spunky, I was trying to encourage a spirit of collegiality as opposed to competition. Have yourself a very merry Christmas.

  11. mimi says:

    What would have been really great is if the mechanic had picked up the phone and it would have been a woman. Because, let’s face it, that is completely plausible and it would have taught you even more about judging the roles and power of women in society.

  12. Linda Mcmahon says:

    Me and my husband have strong and weak points and we try to help out each other to sort it out. There’s no perfect couple but if you keep things simple and less complicated then there shouldn’t be a problem.

  13. Beatrice says:

    I both taught and was taught this lesson this month. While talking about “expanded spheres of influence” my mind immediately goes to extending women’s roles beyond the home to professional pursuits. I think about women using their talents, knowledge, and abilities to influence other people (such as coming up with unique solutions to problems, and scientific endeavors). However, the women I interacted with focused on missionary efforts (such as being a good example in “the world”). I think that it is interesting how we interpreted the same message so differently.

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