Guest Post: Heeding the Invitation of the Savior to ‘Come Unto Me’
(In her post from earlier today, Laura gave us the back story and aftermath of her Sacrament Meeting talk in which she spoke of her personal beliefs that women should be ordained and included in the governing structure of the Mormon Church. Below is the actual talk she gave.)
COME UNTO ME is the invitation of the Savior to us. It is found in the New Testament, the Book of Mormon and reiterated in our modern scriptures in Section 88 verse 63 of Doctrine and Covenants. “Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you; seek me diligently and ye shall find me; ask and ye shall receive; knock and it shall be opened unto you.”
How do we draw near unto the Savior? He has shown us by His words and his example what He values and how we are to be numbered among His people. Alma, in Mosiah 18:91 sets out our responsibilities if we are to be called the people of God: “Ye are willing to bear on another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those who mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” And in Matthew 25:40 we are counseled, “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” King Benjamin told his people and us in Mosiah 2:1: “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God.” Jesus spent His life among those who were marginalized, who were unacceptable to and within the mainstream culture of His day.
I have been informed by an incident that happened to me many years ago while I was in college. I regularly stopped by a 7-11 near my home for a snack or a drink. I often saw a homeless man at this 7-11. One day, I was feeling particularly benevolent and I thought, “I will buy this guy a cup of coffee.” I went into the store and came back out with a steaming cup of 7-11 coffee and approached the homeless man. “I got you a cup of coffee, “ I said to the man, offering the cup to him. He looked at me and said, “Thank you, but I just had one.” I stood there for an instant and then tried again, “But, you don’t want this cup of coffee?” “No,” he answered, “but thank you.” I took my coffee and got in my car and went to work. This little exchange has been a metaphor for me, often in watching the way the church works. See, what I did was good, and kind, and thoughtful. But it had never occurred to me to ask this man if he would like a cup of coffee before I took it upon myself to fill a need I perceived he had.
I will come back to this story later.
There are people among us today; in our congregations and our communities and even sometimes in our families who don’t feel welcome, who are outcast and marginalized. Who are these strangers among us?
Those who have questions often find themselves strangers among us. We too often see them as dissident, disobedient, lacking in faith, questioning our testimonies and our leaders. Why can’t they just listen to our leaders who tell us what we need to think about and have faith that all things will be made known in the Lord’s due time?
Gays and lesbians have been made visible as strangers among us recently. Utah leads the nation in suicide among youth who identify as gay and lesbian. Almost half of the population of homeless teens in Utah are gay and lesbian children who have been expelled from their LDS homes after having told their parents about their sexual orientation. I am going to leave these disturbing statistics with the comment that there is something profoundly wrong with the way we are perceiving and treating these strangers among us that we should think about.
The strangers with whom my heart really lies are certain women in the church today. Let me give some historical context on the way women have functioned in the church. The women of the first Relief Society were counseled by Joseph Smith, “I will make of you a society of priest as in Enoch’s day, as in Paul’s day.” That trajectory was cut short by his martyrdom after which the Relief Society was dissolved as the Saints prepared for the exodus to the West.
The Relief Society was re-organized after the Saints had reached the Salt Lake valley. The Relief Society was an autonomous organization that was not brought under the auspices of the priesthood until much later. These women owned their own buildings, collected and managed their own funds and initiated and ran their own programs. They were suffragists, doctors (sent to school in the East with Relief Society funds), nurses (trained by the doctors who returned form medical school in the East), business owners, farmers, political leaders, builders and administrators of hospitals, writers, poets, publishers of their own magazines, newsletters and instruction manuals. It goes without saying that they were wives and mothers.
Our allotted spaces for women in the church have narrowed considerably over the decades of the twentieth century and a cult of femininity defined exclusively as wife/mother has developed. I quote Chieko Okazaki the First Counselor in the General Relief Society Presidency form 1990 -1007: “The current infrastructure of the church is not allowing women to be equally represented; our voices simply aren’t an integral part of the narrative.” Take, for instance two rather significant undertakings that were done during Sister Okazaki’s tenure: the Proclamation on the Family and the latest revisions of the Relief Society manuals.
The Family: A Proclamation to the World is a public statement made by the leadership of the church with the intent of aiding the Saints as they face current challenges. We are told time and again that women’s highest form of divinity is their unique ability to nurture and strengthen the family. Given these two facts, one would assume that the General Relief Society Presidency would have been very intimately involved in the conception, drafting and publication of the Proclamation. You would be wrong. The General Relief Society presidency was not even notified that this Proclamation was in the works. They were not informed, they were not included in any of the meetings or discussions where the Proclamation took shape. They were not asked for consultation of any kind in its drafting and no one had even thought to ask if there might be specific concerns for women which should be included.
The role of the first counselor in the General Relief Society Presidency is to oversee the education structure for the sisters. In this capacity, Sister Okazaki was looking for ways in which the lessons could better address the current needs of the women in the church. She realized that the lesson manual was due to be updated soon so she prayerfully wrote a general outline to get this process underway. After her outline was approved by the Relief Society presidency, she brought it to the curriculum committee. She was promptly told that her lesson manual outline and suggestions were not needed because a new manual had already been written for them and was near completion. The manual had been written by five men, and a decision had been made for the Priesthood quorum and the Relief Society to have the same lesson manuals. No one had thought to include any women, much less the General Relief Society presidency in the decision making and creation of these lesson manuals.
I do not doubt that the General Authorities are men with the best of intentions. They want to do what is right and to offer us, as members, only the best guidance and advice. This sort of thing, though, is me with my cup of coffee and the homeless man at the 7-11. I had not stopped to consider that listening to those we would serve in order to hear their needs and their concerns is the single most important thing we can do in offering service to others.
The obsessive and narrow definition of a wife/stay-at-home mother as the only acceptable way to be a Latter-day Saint woman does not serve us well. Women too often get the message loud and clear that their job is to be supportive and just agree with the decisions of the priesthood leaders, and they feel it’s inappropriate to speak, to question, to point out that things could be better. Often when they do speak up, their voices are simply unheard, because priesthood leaders are not accustomed to having their counsel. This has made too many of our sisters strangers in our congregations.
It has left women who are unable to have children out of the equation. It has made women who do not want children practically pariahs. There was a recent article in the Deseret News that excoriated those who would make the choice to not have children. There are many reasons to make such a choice, but there is no room in our culture to do so.
Single sisters, I have walked a few years in your shoes and have some understanding of what the culture of the church looks like from your perspective. There too often seems to be no place for you. You are thrown the bone of “Well, you will have the opportunity to marry and have children in the next life.” Uh huh. So what is this life? A waiting room? This teaching is unfortunately very dismissive of your lives and your accomplishments and your contributions to your communities and the world at large.
This definition of womanhood as wife/mother shortchanges our youth. The girls coming up through Young Women absorb through countless talks and conferences and firesides and lessons that being a wife and mother is the only acceptable way to be a woman in the gospel. Anything else is just in case. Get an education, just in case; enter the workforce and tread water until you get married and your real like starts. Young women are either not encouraged toward or are outright discouraged from serious career planning and investment in work that is satisfying and capable of supporting themselves and a family. If they marry, they have no expectation of a husband being willing to invest in their careers and educations at anywhere near the level they will be expected to invest in his.
The young men are not unscathed. They are not prepared to be full partners with their wives in the care and nurture of their children as fathers. As husbands their expectation is that their wives will shoulder the burdens of home-keeping and child care and likely supplementing the family income as well. This leaves them scrambling to acquire the skills to function in a family in the realities of the world today, on the ground, while accomplishing all the other developmental tasks of their early adulthood. If they don’t marry, they are still left to acquire the skills to care for themselves appropriately on their own, while they are also moving into the other responsibilities of adulthood.
I am a supporter of ordaining women. I think this is a step that will have positive consequences far beyond the confines of our church communities. I join with those who are asking our leaders, those authorized to receive revelation for the church as a whole, to petition the Lord for further light and knowledge. We have full faith in continuing revelation. I believe in the promise of the ninth article of faith: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” Those of us asking our leaders to seek the counsel of the Lord on this important topic are seeking a place at the table, so that women’s voices, women’s lives, women’s challenges, and women’s diversity also inform the perceptions and actions of those who are creating the programs and writing and presenting the publications and counsel that shape our religious culture. We may not need a cup of coffee, no matter how well intentioned the offer of this metaphorical coffee, if it is not meeting our needs.
When we begin to see women routinely acting in all capacities within our religious communities and being regarded and viewed and treated as fully and equally human, I believe that boys and girls will grow up into men and women who have very different fundamental assumptions about themselves and each other than we currently have. I think we will find that viewing individuals of the opposite sex in a more nuanced and less restricted way will be a paradigm shift of colossal scope. I believe that we will be freer to see individuals as individuals with strengths and weaknesses, gifts and goals that are unique and that will open the possibilities of tapping the potential of individuals for greatness. I also think it will revolutionize the way girls view themselves as they grow into women. I believe that the creative and intellectual energy that is now being carefully circumscribed will change the world in ways we can only imagine. I believe that boys will flourish as well when they are no longer required to spend so much psychological energy patrolling and enforcing the borders of masculinity.
I work for a world made new when the divine feminine is allowed to come into full partnership with the divine masculine and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
There has been a great deal of very venomous rhetoric aimed at members of Ordain Women and myself personally. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have been told that if I don’t like things the way they are that I should just leave. I have been dismissed, my understanding of the gospel questioned, I have been accused of trying to tear down the church and of seeking power or being power I find this charge of seeking power an interesting one in that priesthood does not confer power in the sense that we usually understand it. Power that is perceived as hierarchical and monarchical is diluted when you share in that power. The more people who have power in this model, the less one person has of it. This is the model that sustains self-aggrandizement and it seems that is what is really meant by the charge that we are power hungry; that we seek for self I don’t see that priesthood power is conducive to self-aggrandizement. This is the power to bless and to serve and to teach and to discern and to prophesy and to reach the full measure of our creation and to glorify God who said in Moses 1:39, “Behold, this is my work and my glory, to bring about the immortality and eternal life of man.” Man in the generic, I am certain. If that is self-aggrandizement, we need more of it in the world.
I joined Ordain Women last October when we went as a group and requested admission to the priesthood session as prospective elders. After we were turned away, the words of President Uchtdorf came to us like sweet manna to our starved and weary souls. He said, “Regardless of your circumstances, your personal history, or the strength of your testimony, there is room for you in this Church.”
“To those who have separated themselves from the Church, I say, my dear friends, there is yet a place for you here. Come and add your talents, gifts and energies to ours. We will become better as a result.”
These are wise and loving words.
“Come back, there is room for you here…” he said, and yet. Oh, and yet, right outside the doors, within our congregation and even in our family circles are those whose struggle to maintain their faith has become or is becoming unsustainable because they know there is no room for them here. They know because they have lived an experience that so many refuse to see or hear because of what they think they know. They have been turned away by the words and, more importantly, the actions of the body of the Church from the top down; actions and words not of the few and the far between, but of the many and the constant.
I hope that we will go forth from today and make the counsel of President Uchtdorf, King Benjamin, Alma and Jesus Himself manifest in the world. To turn harsh words away with kindness, to listen with our hearts and minds open to the struggles and need of those around us, and to offer the outstretched hand to those who are strangers among us. For this is how we truly heed the invitation extended to us from Jesus: “Come unto me.”