February 7, 2010

My Sermon: Gifts of the Spirit

Posted in Christianity, faith and doubt, Mormonism tagged , , , at 6:18 am by Gaia

Last Sunday I gave a sermon in my Mormon congregation. One of the kind of nice things about Mormonism is that there is no clerical class. Lay people run everything, which means that we all — men and women — take turns giving the sermons. Most Mormons do this once every three years or so.

My topic was gifts of the spirit, and I saw it as a chance to talk progressively about Jesus, the divinity within us all, and diversity leading to unity. I gave this talk to about 350 Mormons, and it was very well received, despite my mentioning of my complex relationship with the Church.

Here are some excerpts:

…{Paul tells the Corinthians that} Just as the body needs various limbs and members, so the church needs people with different spiritual gifts, with each person making her own contribution to the welfare of the whole.

When I read these verses, I see Paul telling us that diversity contributes to unity. We all may have different gifts, some people may be strong and others may be weak, but when one of us suffers, no matter how unimportant that person may seem, the whole body of the Christ suffers. We are to care for one another, no matter our differences.

This idea of diversity contributing to unity is meaningful for me personally. I’m not someone who always feels like I fit easily into standard Mormon molds. I have a somewhat complicated relationship to the church, a relationship characterized by faith and doubt and hope and despair. But despite all my weaknesses and all my quirks, I love the idea that there’s a place for me within the body of Christ. That I have something special, something unique to offer. And that when I suffer, in some way, to some degree, my community suffers as well. Because I’m important. Every single one of us is important, Paul tells us. I find that touching.

And later on in my talk:

My own mother is a person who has a divine ability to care. When my father died when I was a baby, she wanted nothing more than to return back to her home town, so she could be near her parents and sister. But she stayed in Southern California because my brother and I were the only grandchildren on my father’s side. After losing their son, she couldn’t bear to move away and take me and my brother away from my father’s parents. So she stayed. For 25 years she stayed, looking after them in their old age until their death. I’ll never forget when Grandpa was in the hospital nearing the end of his life. The nurse came in and announced my mom, saying, Your daughter-in-law is here!. With tears in his eyes Grandpa said, No. My daughter.  This is my daughter,” as he took her hand. He and Grandma had come a long way. As a Presbyterian family, they had initially been a bit worried about their son marrying a Mormon woman. But by the end of their lives, they certainly could see my mom’s gift for loyalty, and loving and caring, and they adored her for it.

And the very end:

I’ve always loved that Hindu greeting Namaste, which means “The divine in me honors the divine in you.” It cuts to the chase. It goes to the heart of who we are – divine children of Heavenly Parents, working together in this constant process of becoming holy. 

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November 22, 2009

Why I Wait Within The Mormon Church

Posted in Family, feminism, the Mormon church, waiting at 10:42 pm by Gaia

Attending my Mormon congregation is a struggle for me sometimes. A lot of the rhetoric I hear over the pulpit about gender roles and identity, “us” vs. “the world”, exclusivity, and black and white statements in general – not to mention a lack of focus on the social gospel – drive me up a wall.

But despite all of that, I am somewhat committed to staying at least a partially active member, to waiting for the Church to change. I can locate a few reasons for this.

1. Mike. He’s the best human male I’ve ever met. Hands down. Kind, ethical, compassionate, thoughtful. And really smart. Sure, there are some things I would change (e.g. his politics and lesser interest in helping animals), but overall he is an incredibly good person. And the LDS Church helped produce him. I can’t forget that. Every time I wonder why I stay, I look at him and know that the Church can indeed do very good things for some people and teach some very good principles. It helped fashion a marvelous human being in Mike.

2. While I find a lot of Joseph Smith’s actions, particularly during the Nauvoo period deeply problematic, I like his radical vision of a new religion. I find compelling his vision for the divine potential of humans, male and female. I like his radical approach to battling poverty through the United Order. I think his ideas about the spiritual and divine potential of women were particularly revolutionary, as when he “turned the key” to the women’s Relief Society and organized them “in the order of the priesthood.” I think our present day Church institution has unfortunately retreated from the liberated vision Joseph Smith had for women.

3. I wait within the Church because I now realize I can choose what to believe in. I wait because I now realize that I have the privilege, the right, and the responsibility to embrace those wonderful LDS ideas that empower me and to reject the ones that don’t. And this realization – that I can choose what to believe in, that Mormonism is not an all or nothing proposition – has liberated me. By rejecting the ideas that tear me down and hurt me (men presiding in the family, women having to hearken unto husbands, a circumscribed definition of womanhood, polygamy as my eternal future), I am now at liberty to embrace the ideas which I love that are also a part of my faith. It inspires me to know that the Jesus we Mormons believe in is the same Jesus who went out of his way to include and teach the outcasts of society, to break taboos, and to uplift all humans despite race, sex, or class. That is the Jesus I accept and love, and any ideas that have crept into Mormonism that go against that, I roundly reject.

4. I wait because I know that leaders need to be allowed to make mistakes and grow. At this point in my spiritual life, I am on a religious journey that privileges my own conception of God’s wishes and my own conscience (i.e. personal revelation/the Spirit) over the statements of Church Authorities. I now realize that all human beings, including Church leaders, are subject to their own cultural contexts, and that even the wisest, most wonderful leaders can allow unfortunate cultural ideas to creep into their conceptions of the gospel. I am trying to be more compassionate towards these leaders. After all, they are human, and I am human. And I know that I make mistakes too.

5. I wait because of my own fallibility. This realization of my own fallibility has also profoundly affected my relationship with the Church. Just as I need the Divine to forgive me for all the mistakes I make, I know that I need to forgive the institutional Church for the mistakes it makes. It’s not easy to do. I am hurt by the ways women are routinely shut out from the general Church hierarchy, by the ways women’s voices and ideas are lost or ignored in nearly all Church talks and lessons. But I need to give the Church time to progress. This is the gospel of progression; it is also the Church of progression. And I have reason to hope that it will indeed progress with time. (After all, blacks did eventually get the priesthood.)

6. I also wait within the Church because, in order for the Church to progress, it needs people like me. The Church benefits from having all types of people of various ethnic backgrounds, ideologies, and political persuasions. The more types of people it has, the more types of people it can help. Besides, this is my church too. If progressive, liberal people keep leaving the Church, it will be left with a population that grows steadily more conservative and homogeneous in ideology. This would negatively impact its ability to be the inclusive and compassionate church I know it has the potential to be.

November 8, 2009

Immortality: Surprising Confluences Between Feminist Theology and Mormonism

Posted in interfaith experiences, religion at 3:57 am by Gaia

On the whole, I like the Mormon concept of immortality. I like the idea of being with my family forever. I like the idea of being able to love and live with a child or spouse or parent that might have died too young. I like the idea of being eternally engaged in learning and working with others. Ok, I am put off by the idea that I as woman might be an eternal baby maker, and the status of Heavenly Mother – my immortal role model – is angst inducing if I sit down and think about it for very long. But in my positive moments, I have some hope that my husband and I would actually be equals in the next life – that the patriarchy of our church and of our world is just a natural consequence of the fall and of human fallibility.

So I initially found it a bit jarring yesterday as I read about one Christian feminist theologian’s take on immortality. Ruether, author of Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, is a founding mother in the field. She questions whether or not the idea of immortality is an outgrowth of a Western (and she would also say male) concern with self-perpetuation as well as an abstraction from the real life processes of growing, birthing and dying. She has reason for this latter concern: in traditional Christian theology, immortality is static, and according to some church fathers, the resurrected female body (not the male) will have its sexual organs neutered in some way so as to not be able to inspire lust.

Ruether proposes that we explore a feminist theology that moves away from thinking so much about the ego’s everlastingness and instead accepts our own finiteness and embraces death as part of a natural matrix of humans and non-humans, who spring from the earth and eventually return from it in a nutritive regenerative cycle. Rather than hoping for the ideal in the next life, she urges us to use this present moment to create a just and good community for our children.

I have mixed feelings about Ruether’s rather negative take on immortality. On the one hand, I very much appreciate her ideas about valuing the body, accepting change, and restoring balance between human and non human. On the other, I really like the idea of existing eternally, that there is something so important about my soul that it is co-eternal with the divine (even if that idea is a bit egotistical).

So it might appear that Mormonism and Ruether’s feminist theology might not have a lot of common ground to work with regarding the concept of immortality. But I actually see some surprising confluences. Mormonism’s concept of immortality is very different than the one Ruether is rejecting. Our immortality not only accepts change, it expects and embraces it. Rather than a heaven that is never-changing perfection, Mormonism’s concept of eternal life is all about working to make progress and evolve. There is an embracing of the body, sexuality, and natural life processes in our ideas of eternal reproduction. In a nutshell, I see Mormonism’s concept of eternal life as a merging of both traditional Christian ideas about immortality and of Ruether’s feminist emphasis on the body and change.

October 25, 2009

Having Children Young: Reflections on the Mormon Directive

Posted in Family, kids, mothering at 9:55 pm by Gaia

baby A, 2 days old

baby A, 2 days old

Three months ago, I gave birth to my second child. A girl this time. Though a bit sleep deprived and stressed out about how to care for both her and my 3 year old son, I’m absolutely thrilled to have her, as is my husband. Getting her involved several unpleasant trips to the fertility clinic, so we feel terribly lucky that it all worked out so well.

Having this baby has made me ponder Mormon Church leaders’ directives to not postpone having children. This advice (command?) never made much of an impact on me as a young married woman. I waited six years after my marriage to begin our family. I was almost 29, and I was always glad I waited, though my husband would have been happy to begin our family sooner. By the time I had my son, I really wanted a baby. I was ready. I would have struggled and had a much harder time with motherhood and marriage if I had had him a year or two into our marriage.

While my experience with postponing my family has definitely been an overall good one, I now appreciate, more than ever before, the idea of not waiting too long to begin. I had problems getting pregnant at 30. If I had waited until I was 38, it could have been that much harder, I imagine. Having experienced some infertility, I now ironically find myself tentatively advising my friends who are in their 30’s and getting married to not wait too long before trying to get pregnant, if they know for sure that they do want children eventually.

While my appreciation for this directive to not postpone families has grown because of my own experience with infertility, I am left wondering just why there continues to be an emphasis on having children young. Mormon Relief Society President Julie Beck’s 2007 ‘Mothers Who Know’ talk reinforces the idea. She states:

“President Ezra Taft Benson taught that young couples should not postpone having children and that “in the eternal perspective, children—not possessions, not position, not prestige—are our greatest jewels.”

I don’t know if she meant the second half of her sentence to explain the first half – i.e. that couples should not postpone children because children are our greatest jewels. But if she did, one can easily argue that children can still be our greatest jewels (I’m uncomfortable with that metaphor, but I’ll go with it), whether one gives birth to them in one’s thirties or one’s twenties.

The Kimball talk Beck references, “To the Mothers In Zion” gives additional hints as to why he implored young people to not put off having children. He seems to associate having children young with having many children, since he spends a bit of time talking about the joys of large families.

With the decrease in emphasis on having large families, however, I am left wondering if there are other, often unspoken reasons for Mormon leaders’ continuing emphasis on having children early into the marriage. Here are a few possible reasons I’ve come up with.

1) having children young might keep fragile young marriages together, as couples are given additional incentives to try to work through their problems.

2.) encouraging women to not postpone children often prevents them from establishing themselves in the workforce, thus making the gender role division that Church leaders advocate more likely.

3) since Church leaders see having children as such a huge factor in character and personal development, they think that the earlier one starts, the better a person he or she can become.

Personally, I don’t find these three to be persuasive reasons to have children young. (And in fact, regarding the first two, I actually find them potentially damaging.)

However, the older I get, the more I do understand that having children young is not necessarily a recipe for disaster. I like to think of my friend who had her babies at 22 and 24. Having done the stay at home mom thing for the first few years of her kids’ lives, she’s now in her late thirties and is one year away from completing her Ph.D. Certainly there are many ways to conduct a successful life. And children, whether they come early or late, don’t mean the end of studying, learning, and moving forward professionally.

October 12, 2009

The Mormon Goddess

Posted in feminism, Goddess tagged , , at 6:34 am by Gaia

Feathered Goddess by Emily Balivet

Feathered Goddess by Emily Balivet

One of the best things about being a Mormon woman is the fact that we do believe in a divine feminine, a Heavenly Mother.  This sets Mormons apart in the Christian tradition.

Unfortunately, however, our belief in God the Mother is a double edged sword, since we are instructed by our (male) leaders to not pray to Her. She is never talked about as having any kind of relationship with Her children on earth. She is never talked about at all, really. To mention Her in church is to draw worried looks. She is too sacred, Mormons surmise, to even mention.

God the Mother’s invisibility is a major problem for Mormon feminists. Is it better to have a feminine divine that won’t or can’t have a relationship with Her children, or is it better to not have one at all?

Despite the obvious problems and dangers with Her current status in the Church, I fall on the side of being happy we have Her. And because she is such a mystery, I can project on to Her all that I want her to be.

After reading an article on the feminine divine by Carol Christ, I was inspired to use some of Christ’s words and images to imagine my Goddess, my Mother. She is purposefully characterized against traditional, static, colorless Christian conceptions of divinity.

The Goddess
Her eyes the green of growth,
Her robe the red of blood,
Her hair the black of night.

She is earth, air, fire, and water.
Waxing and waning,
She is the power of transformation and change,
the elements of life.

Patroness of prophecy, inspiration and power,
She is wisdom, independence, personal strength, and self.
Passion and emotion emanate,
As she savors imagination, creativity, and experimentation.

A beneficent and autonomous power,
She gives just law, heals, writes and takes action.

As giver and nurturer of life
Dispenser of wholeness and happiness,
healing love and service to all
She is Goddess.

September 26, 2009

Why I’m Glad My Hawk Nose Grew Back

Posted in Body Image, feminism at 9:29 pm by Gaia

caroline-march-2008

When I was a teenager, I agonized over my nose. Large, bold, and bumpy, no one in my family could figure out what ancestor it came from. I often wore my hair down so that with a toss of my head I could easily hide it. I was self-conscious and shy, and it was all due, I was convinced, to my terrible nose.

How I suffered over it. Eventually my mom got sick of hearing about it so she’d say, “Well, why don’t you do something about it?” So we went to a plastic surgeon. A month before my 18th birthday, I underwent surgery to remove the bump, narrow it a little, and make the tip slightly finer.

This is probably a bit shocking to a lot of you, but you should understand my cultural context. Where I came from – an affluent town in So Cal – several young people got nose jobs. My two best friends did. So did a boy and a girl in my congregation who were in my grade. It was not that unusual a thing to do.

The experience itself was terrible. Somehow the plastic surgeon convinced me to choose a local anesthetic. Big mistake. The shots inside my nose were one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced. And then I lay awake and watched them lean over me and file down my nose. When it was all over, my face was swollen to twice its normal size. I had an emotional breakdown after I saw myself in the mirror that night. Against my bruised and swollen face, my new nose looked like a pig nose – my worst nightmare.

But a month after the surgery, I was loving life. My new nose looked fantastic once the swelling left. I felt fantastic. I went away to college confident, happy, and far more outgoing than I had ever been before. I had absolutely no regrets.

Over the years, however, my feminist sensibilities have made me question this decision I made at 17. Did I just fall into that old societal trap that told me that I had to have a Barbie face to be attractive? Was all that confidence false and misplaced? Did I sacrifice my own distinctive look for something merely unobjectionable?

I think the answer to all those questions is probably yes. If I could go back and have a conversation with my teenage self, I think I would try to talk her out of doing it. I would try to help her to realize that one shouldn’t let fashion magazines make a person so miserable for looking a little different. I would try to convince her to focus on all the great features she had, physical and especially non-physical.

But at the same time, I still can’t deny how much the surgery meant to me at that point in my life, how much it increased my happiness in those heady years between 18 and 23 when I felt beautiful, powerful, and completely in charge of my own destiny.

And the ironic thing? My nose grew back. (Apparently this happens sometimes when young people get this kind of plastic surgery.) It took 12 years of gradual growing, but I no longer have that perfectly straight fine tipped nose that filled me with such relief and giddiness. It’s pretty hawkish these days. And I must say, I rather like it. It’s distinctive. It’s strong. It’s what I should have embraced as uniquely me from the beginning.

September 23, 2009

The Prayer of an Unbeliever

Posted in faith and doubt, prayers at 11:43 pm by Gaia

painting by Anju Walters

The Evening Prayer by Anju Walters

Prayers from various religious traditions uplift and expand my being. Ironic since I haven’t prayed regularly for 5 years now. The patterns of my Mormon prayers feel constrained and empty to me at times. I know the fault lies within myself, that there is a way to connect to the divine in the thank-ask pattern I’ve learned since primary.

But I haven’t quite figured out how to make my Mormon prayers click yet. So I turn to the prayers of others.

I was touched by holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s prayer.  In his book Night, he describes his loss of faith as he surveys the bodies of murdered children.  He writes, “Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust….”

In an interview by Krista Tippett, she asks him what happened after that. What happened after he lost his faith forever.

His response: “I went on praying.”

Here is his prayer:

I no longer ask You for either happiness or paradise; all I ask You is to listen and let me be aware of Your listening.

I no longer ask You to resolve my questions, only to receive them and make them part of You.

I no longer ask You for either rest or wisdom, I only ask You not to close me to gratitude, be it of the most trivial kind, or to surprise and friendship. Love? Love is not Yours to give.

As for my enemies, I do not ask You to punish them or even to enlighten them; I only ask You not to lend them Your mask and Your powers. If You must relinquish one or the other, give them Your powers. But not Your countenance.

They are modest, my requests, and humble. I ask You what I might ask a stranger met by chance at twilight in a barren land.

I ask You, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to enable me to pronounce these words without betraying the child that transmitted them to me: God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, enable me to forgive You and enable the child I once was to forgive me too.

I no longer ask You for the life of that child, nor even for his faith. I only beg You to listen to him and act in such a way that You and I can listen to him together.

My soul resonates with this prayer. In it I find room for questions and answers, for anger and mystery, for faith and doubt. It is transcendent.

This is Why I’m a Feminist

Posted in feminism, feminist journey, our histories, why i am a feminist at 11:42 pm by Gaia

The women were innocent and defenseless. And by the end of the night, they were barely alive.

Forty prison guards wielding clubs and their warden’s blessing went on a rampage against the 33 women wrongly convicted of “obstructing sidewalk traffic.” They beat Lucy Burn, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head and left her hanging for the night, bleeding and gasping for air. They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed and knocked her out cold. Her cellmate, Alice Cosu, thoughtLewis was dead and suffered a heart attack….

Thus unfolded the Night of Terror on Nov. 15, 1917, when the warden at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia ordered his guards to teach a lesson to the suffragists imprisoned there because they dared to picket Woodrow Wilson’s White House for the right to vote….*

I am proud to embrace the term ‘feminist’. I do so in solidarity and gratefulness to the women who worked so tirelessly and in the face of such antagonism to win me the right to vote. I also do so in solidarity with the women of a generation or two ago that won me the right to hold a credit card in my name, to obtain a home loan, and to participate in women’s sports.

My journey towards feminism has had several seminal moments.

-Reading Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in high school and rejoicing when the main character chooses to leave the husband that infantilizes her in order to search for her true adult self.

-Recognizing the way girls were treated so differently in my Mormon congregation: unable to pass the sacrament, ineligable to receive the priesthood as all the boys did, taught to support and sustain their husbands as priesthood holders who would ‘preside’ over them.

-Attending a women’s college in which nearly every course had a feminist spin. There I met so many other students and professors, whom I respected so much, and who identified themselves as feminists.

-And perhaps most importantly, finding a vibrant group of Mormon feminist intellectuals, who had the bravery and integrity to confront the gender disparities in our faith and work towards a more equitable future.

As the years go by and I meet more thoughtful and compassionate feminists, I become increasingly proud to align myself with them.

*from a newspapaer column by Connie Schultz