To say what is truth?

27I have not been able to stop thinking about an essay I read a few months ago: “Oh Say What is Truth? Understanding Mormonism Through a Black Feminist Epistemology”  The author argues that in Mormonism truth is acquired through feeling, citing D&C 9:8, as well as through lived experience; these are the ways we “find out for ourselves.”  These methods of determining truth are part of a black feminist epistemology set forth by Patricia Hill Collins, and the essay argues that her ideas are very close to Mormon methods of determining truth.

Taking feelings and lived experience a step further, Collins argues that a collective dialogue is essential to furthering and developing the truth that each person has acquired, and that each person has a moral obligation to share her truth.  Collins wrote, “The fundamental requirement of [a collective dialogue] is the active participation of all individuals. For ideas to be tested and validated, everyone in the group must participate. To refuse to join in, especially if one really disagrees with what has been said, is seen as ‘cheating.’” The essayist concludes, “Because we all have a truth to speak, to fail to speak our truth especially when it is needed most – when it is being contradicted – is to fail the community’s efforts to build collective, experienced-based truth as a whole body.”

I try to live as though participating in collective dialogue is a moral obligation.  For years I’ve felt that speaking my truth regarding gender equality in Mormonism is one of the important purposes of my life.  For example, Mormonism is patriarchal, but I believe patriarchy is a Judeo-Christian heritage not inspired by God, passed down through many years of unchecked sexism, and now entangled so that it touches nearly every aspect of Church culture and much of Church doctrine.  How do I live as part of a religious community with strongly held traditional beliefs and while hoping for radical change?

I do it by talking.  I use inclusive language, I comment often in Sunday School and Relief Society, I get up in fast and testimony meeting a few times every year, I give carefully crafted talks that are both diplomatic and radical, and I write for a Mormon feminist blog and paper.  I speak my truth wherever I can.  This can be scary because it opens me up for criticism and judgement, but it can also create unexpected connections with people who resonate with what I’ve said.  In the context of contemporary American life it may seem tame to speak truth in one’s own small community – others have spoken up at much greater cost than I have, and to greater effect.  But to do this consistently, to remain attached to a community that has expanded my spirit but also makes me weep, this takes courage and staying power.

So, my ideas matter, even if, or especially when, they are contrary to the status quo.  And if a collective dialogue is needed to develop and advance knowledge, then I need to keep showing up for that dialogue.  I also believe that organizations need insiders working for change for that change to become possible.

But here’s the problem.  What if I’m a lone reed?  In my experience there needs to be a critical mass of people in a Sunday School discussion to get an idea afloat.  It’s great when that happens, and the discussion becomes enlightening and enlivening.  But what if comments or questions fall flat and the teacher marches on with the lesson as planned?  What if people hold your truth in contempt, or possibly worse, just ignore it?  A dialogue in which everyone participates sounds great, but in does that ever happen in real life?  What if, as happened to me earlier this month, a First Presidency letter, the bishopric’s selection of the theme for sacrament meeting, and the material in the talks and discussions form a unified block of content that I don’t resonate with?  Are comments against such a backdrop useful, or contentious even if contention is not my intent?

I’m lonely and tired, friends.  So please, give me your stories.  When you speak up, how does it go?  What do you learn?  Does it create a spark for generating sincere discussion?  Or does your spark fall to the ground, extingushed?  If it’s the latter, what does that mean?

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Introducing our Heavenly Mother’s Day Series

CW: Suicidal thoughts

I moved to Oakland five years ago. One of my first outings in the Bay Area was a gathering at Carol Lynn Pearson’s house where she gave each of us copies of her play, Mother Wove the Morning. It sat on my shelf for months because I didn’t want to open up Heavenly Mother-less wound I had.

When I finally read it, half a year later, I discovered that I was right in that it was an intense experience. I loved reading it and yet I ached. I wanted a relationship with Heavenly Mother, but I didn’t know how. Unfortunately the bigger question for me was “why.” Why should I have a relationship with Her?

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A Tale of Two Churches

st. johns bellefonte  A few weeks ago, on Easter, I attended an Episcopalian church service with my boyfriend and his family. It was a very High service with lots of reciting, standing, kneeling, standing, and sitting. The priest sang almost all the prayers. The chapel was very ornate with high, decorative ceilings and stained glass windows. The altar at the front of the church was beautifully decorated with lilies and daffodils. The priest and deacons wore white and gold robes. There was a (I’m pretty sure) professional organist who played beautifully; the organ itself was set in one corner of the church. The building was probably 200 years old so it was a pipe organ, beautifully carved. When it was played you could feel the air vibrate. There was incense and candles.

It was basically the opposite of what Sunday services are like in my small YSA branch. We meet in a renovated post office on folding chairs. The only prayer that is the same every week is the blessing on the sacrament. Services are much more relaxed and much less liturgical. My branch president generally wears dark suits; they are nice suits, don’t get me wrong, but they are not embroidered with gold thread. I am the pianist (we don’t have an organ), and between you and me, I fake my way through most of the songs. We don’t even have a real piano; it is an electric keyboard.

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Childhood Myths

Childhood Myths

“…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.

Mother EarthOn 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? 

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Sacred Music: Simple Song

I had the opportunity to sing in the chorus for a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS when I was a senior in high school. As a young person I had no idea what a big deal this was–Bernstein’s MASS is hugely controversial and rarely performed because of its enormity. And while this was all lost on me, I found that the music spoke to a part of me that I could not articulate. This piece of music and theater is joyful in its celebration of life and God. But MASS does not shy away from the cognitive dissonance of an ostensibly loving God and the reality human anguish. Indeed, one of the more controversial aspects of MASS is its unapologetic confrontation of God.

As a good Mormon girl, both the music and text were mind blowing to me, I had no idea that you could approach God with such dissonance. But MASS also spoke truth to my soul. Somehow I knew that any god worth worshipping was also vital enough to withstand my questions and sometimes anger.

The piece which I have highlighted here, Simple Song, is at the very beginning of the MASS. It is sung by the celebrant who begins the piece with a simple and pure faith but struggles to maintain his faith as he becomes more aware of the suffering, corruption and evil around him. I feel like my own testimony has taken a similar journey. When I performed the MASS as a young woman my faith was also simple but since that time I have gone through a long dark night of the soul. It has been difficult to reconcile my early faith and spiritual experiences with the perceived absence of God from my life. I have spent years being angry that despite my efforts, God was silent.

I have found recently, however, that my simple faith is returning. I am not blind to the hardships of mortality but I also feel as though my decade long  struggle with God has softened, not scarred, my heart. In that place of rawness a feeling of gratitude has sprouted. I may never have the powerful faith that we as Mormons are expected to have but I am finding joy in lifting up my eyes to the God.

For the Lord is my shade.

All of my days.

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