Monday, March 30, 2015

Defending the Family: My Take

Over the weekend, my Church hosted a Women's Conference that I attended with two of my daughters.  The Conference began with a video that showed families sitting together in various settings, singing the words of a fairly new children's song about families.  This was followed by many talks about how the family is under attack and called on us, as women, to defend the family.

I have since read many posts online and have talked to women at church about the Conference.  Probably more than any Conference session I can remember, most reactions I have heard are reactions of alienation and confusion.  One woman at church told me that watching the videos of the perfect families singing in the sunlight made her feel inadequate.  I have read blog posts about women wondering exactly what is meant by this call to "defend the family?"  From one blogger:  “Hey, does this mean I should be speaking out against divorce and/or same-sex marriage and/or unwed parenthood?”  

I think for most of us, imagining ourselves getting on a soapbox and having confrontational exchanges with our friends and families about polarizing issues doesn't sound fun or effective.  And frankly, it doesn't sound Christlike.  So, I have decided that for me, this is not going to be my take away from Women's Conference.  Even though such a conversation is where my mind first went when I heard the words "defend the family," I don't think this is what our leaders meant (at least I hope not), but they weren't very specific about the specifics.  

And so I guess it leaves it to each of us to figure out the specifics for ourselves.

So I have been asking myself all day, first: What are the threats to the family?  And by threats, I mean real threats, substantiated by data, not simply by perceptions and fears.   Secondly, what are my responsibilities in relation to those things?

Research has shown the the biggest threat to stable families is poverty.  In January of this year, The Washington Post published this article that cites research that shows that for the first time in 50 years, the majority of U.S. public school students are in poverty.  These children will have a much harder time getting a good education than their more affluent peers, and because poverty is cyclical, the instability that they are experiencing in their lives will likely be passed on to their children and their children's children.

I run a non-profit organization that focuses on teaching social and emotional learning skills to children and teens through the medium of ballroom dance.  In my work, I visit a lot of schools--from very affluent schools to very high-poverty schools.  

In the affluent schools, the children are supported on all sides.  Parents regularly visit the classrooms.  The PTA raises money for extras from playground equipment to field trips to computers.  The parents show up for our culminating dance performances in droves.  Parking is always a problem because there are so many supporters.  The boys and girls are all impeccably dressed and someone has helped them fix their hair.  Parents bring flowers to celebrate achievements.

In the high-poverty schools, the kids come to school hungry.  The principals and teachers spend their days exhausted from dealing with behavior problems, and it is so hard for them to teach the material to children whose basic needs have not been met.  For principals and teachers, communications with parents are often heated and unproductive, leaving educators emotionally depleted. At one school, the principal packs 30 backpacks full of food to send home with children over the weekend, every weekend, so they have something to eat.  These are homeless children.  In suburban America.  At another school, members of my staff and I cried when we learned of an instance of human trafficking that involved one of the 5th graders.

Children in high-poverty schools often come to school dirty, maybe without basics of clothing.  At these schools, there is usually no PTA support.  There are no extras--unless the teachers and principal can scrape it together.  When we have our culminating dance performances, very few parents attend. Very rarely do children have a nice dress or a shirt and tie to wear.  Often, it is the teachers who help them comb their hair.   

At one of our last inter-school competitions, the principal from a high-poverty school drove all over Tacoma and personally picked up the kids from her school to make sure that they could attend the event, because their parents couldn't drive them (probably single-moms, probably without cars or money for gas).  Contrast this with the affluent school--who brought parents, grandparents, and half the town and overwhelmed the auditorium with their cheers of support.

This is my personal glimpse into poverty and the inequalities it creates for children.  I absolutely believe that poverty is a threat to stable families now and that this threat is increasing as we look into the future.  As hard as they try, those teachers and principals can never fill in the gaps and meet the needs of all of those children.  And without their needs being met, those children, and eventually their children, will be vulnerable to a whole host of problems, some of which I can imagine and some of which I can't.

In Relief Society today our lesson was on living an abundant life (a spiritually abundant life, not a materialistically abundant life).  Towards the end we were reading in Mosiah 18 from the Book of Mormon.  This is a chapter that discusses our baptismal covenants.  

Alma says to the people in verse 8:   

Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;


 Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death . . . 
It goes on, but I realized that this is what we signed up for when we got baptized, to "bear one another's burdens" and to "comfort those that stand in need of comfort."  Have you ever noticed how many times the scriptures implore us to take care of the poor and the needy?  Pretty much constantly.  And that was kind of the theme of Christ's life, who is our example.  It struck me today that the Lord is not asking us to defend the family by having wars of words with our neighbors, but by rolling up our sleeves, extending a hand of fellowship, and following His lead by doing our part to alleviate poverty in our communities.  
I agree with our leaders that women can be tremendously powerful in this effort, and that we are needed.  Several times, I have gone into a high-poverty school and said, "I'm guessing you don't have much PTA support . . . " only to have the principal respond, "Well, we have one amazing mom."  And I have learned that one amazing mom is all it takes.
The example I have shared from observations in my life is just one possibility in what I believe are endless opportunities for strengthening families by addressing poverty.  I am certainly not suggesting that every woman needs to go sign up for the PTA, but I do believe that being involved in the work of local schools is one way to make a difference for families.  There are all kinds of poverty in our world today that extend beyond economic poverty, such as spiritual poverty and emotional poverty, and there are many different ways to address these issues.  None of us has to look far before we see a need that can be filled.  
In John 21:17:  "He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep."
Feed my sheep.  For me, when it comes to defending the family, those are the specifics.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

My Thoughts on the Kerfuffle Surrounding Ordain Women

As I begin this post, I should warn my friends of other faiths that this post deals with a Mormon topic--so I hope you will forgive me if I don't provide as much context as I could and refer to the members of my church as "we" and "our."  I, nonetheless, welcome your ideas and comments as always--even though you might find it strange that this is such a big deal for us.

Here goes:

I've seen lots of posts flying around on my Facebook newsfeed about the controversy surrounding Ordain Women.  For some background I've posted a news story here.  It seems like everyone is picking sides and hollering at each other and I've seen lots of words being tossed like grenades: "apostasy," "bitter," "disrespected," and "exclusion."

As I have considered this issue I find myself thinking again and again of . . . . ballroom dance.  And no, it is not because of the traditional gender roles that ballroom dance embraces and how they relate to feminism--it is because of everything I have learned over the past few months watching a group of dancers that I love struggle with how to deal with questions.

Let me tell you a story.  

I work as the Executive Director of a non-profit arts education organization that teaches ballroom dance to youth.  One of the things we do every year is put together competitive medleys that are a compilation of 5 latin or ballroom dances combined into one artistic piece. We then take these medleys and compete at the United States Ballroom/Latin Formation Championships, which happens to be held at one of the meccas of ballroom dance in the United States: Brigham Young University.  

The ballroom medley thing sounds simple enough. But let me assure you that getting 16 people to unify their minds, hearts, and bodies in a way that they can each dance their individual part in harmony with a partner and the collective group is no easy task.  It takes months and months of dedicated practice to produce 4 minutes of synergy on the dance floor.  It is a process that stretches not only the dancers, but also the coaches to their limits. You become intimately familiar with your own physical and emotional strengths and weaknesses--as well as those of the entire group.  It is an enormous exercise in communication as everyone tries to understand and produce their part of the choreography with exactness.  

And so there are questions.  Lots and lots of questions.  The dancers ask things like:  "Do I step with my right foot or my left?"  "Where do our arms go?" "Should my focus be up or down?"  And the coaches ask things like: "Is that clear?"  "Can I see it again?" "Should I demonstrate it one more time?"  "Are you able to get to your spot?"  

The questions are essential to the success of the group and to the unification of the whole.  Questions facilitate communication and understanding.  But it is easy to get impatient with questions. You get annoyed when someone asks a question that you already know the answer to, or when someone repeatedly brings up a problem that isn't a problem for you. You just want to move on.  It seems to slow things down.  You roll your eyes.  The coach gets frustrated.  

Our Youth Latin team had an especially difficult time this year with questions.  They had suffered a huge disappointment the year before when they did not make the top division of their event for the first time since our Studio began entering this competition.  Throughout the year it was difficult for  some of them to believe in themselves and to trust their coach.  While the majority of their questions were productive and sincere, it was not uncommon for the questions to degenerate into a place of self-doubt and fear.  A tough place to be.    

So what is the point of all of this and how does it relate to Ordain Women?  First, I believe that as members of this Church we are all one "team"--no matter how we label ourselves or each other.  So whether you are conservative or liberal or orthodox or feminist or gay or Molly or Jack--we are all in this together.  As it says in 1 Corinthians 12:12: "For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body." Like our dance team, the goal is to create a synergistic unit that moves together in harmony. 

To do that we MUST ask questions.

Questions are the only way that we will eventually get to a place of understanding and oneness.  We need to be patient with questions.  We need to respect other people's struggles.  If someone on our dance team is repeatedly tripping over their feet getting to their spot or if someone is troubled about an all-male priesthood even if we are not, we still need to stop and consider the issue because it affects all of us--and it needs to be done in a way that doesn't shame.  We need to recognize that even though the status quo may be very comfortable for us, sometimes change is required to get to the next level--to grow closer to God.  

Our dance team hated changes.  They would just get comfortable with something and then somebody would ask a question and often this would lead to the coach changing things.  More questions.  Any change--even a small change--just seemed uncomfortable and unnecessary.  It was hard for them to see how much better it looked and how imperative both the large and the small changes were to the overall picture.

I am very grateful to members of the Church who ask unorthodox questions and challenge the status quo.  My hope is that we will move to a place where it doesn't take so much courage to ask hard questions at Church.  And that those who are seeking answers to questions that are important to them--even if it is a question that isn't important to us--will be given a safe space within our walls and not outside our gates while we explore our faith together.  

 Many years ago I heard this story, which I think of often.  I call it the Parable of the Ham:

A young woman was preparing a ham dinner. After she cut off the end of the ham, she placed it in a pan for baking. 


Her friend asked her, "Why did you cut off the end of the ham?"


And she replied, "I really don't know but my mother always did, so I thought you were supposed to." 


Later when talking to her mother she asked her why she cut off the end of the ham before baking it, and her mother replied, "I really don't know, but that's the way my mom always did it." 


A few weeks later while visiting her grandmother, the young woman asked, "Grandma, why is it that you cut off the end of a ham before you bake it?" 


Her grandmother replied, "Well dear, otherwise it would never fit into my baking pan."

I find this story to be very applicable to many habits in our Mormon culture, even though it often seems to be very taboo to be the one bold enough to ask why we cut off the end of the ham.

The Ordain Women movement has made me much more aware of instances of institutionalized sexism in the Church.  A small example:  As I attend the courts of honor for my friends' sons when they receive their Eagle Scout awards and I see an entire event put together in their honor, and sit through slide shows with all of the photos of their projects, and eat the cake and the goodies and celebrate with 50+ people--it doesn't feel right as a mother of 3 beautiful daughters and a Young Women's leader that the girls are not recognized for their achievements in a way that is equivalent to the hoopla that we make over their male peers.  I think it needs to be re-examined, and I don't know that I would have really thought about it without taking some time to listen to the feminists in my life (my husband is probably the loudest feminist I have in my life currently).  As I have read the perspectives of women who are active with the Ordain Women movement, I do not find them to be bitter and faithless--on the contrary I find their words to be thoughtful and faith promoting.

Now comes the part where I will balance everything I just said about questions with additional thoughts about questions.  And maybe you will be confused because you thought I was on one side and now you are going to think I'm on the other side.  But that's just my point.  There are no sides.  There is only WE.     

As beautiful and necessary and important as questions are, if we are not careful, they can also cripple us.  Someone once told me that our strengths and weaknesses are the same things, and that the key is finding the balance between them.  I have found this to be absolutely difficult and absolutely true in my life.  Don't ask me or anyone else to tell you where your balance is--like a skilled dancer, you must find it for yourself through patience and practice.  

So back to the dance team and the questions--the questions that, even if they were frustrating, were absolutely essential to their success.  They facilitated the learning and the growth and the synergy.

However, on the night of the final performance at their final warm up, in their nervousness the dancers started asking frantic questions.  Questions that were full of fear and doubt. The collective energy of the group started spiraling downward and it was as if they had forgotten all that they did know, how far they had come together, and how very, very strong they were.

When questions stop helping you grow and start causing you to shrink, you have lost your balance.

It was in that moment that we told them that the time had come to stop asking questions.  The time had come to trust.  They had to let go of their doubts and their fears and believe in all that their leaders had taught them.  They had to believe in themselves and the things they did know, even when there were things that they felt they still didn't understand.  They had to believe in each other and that their collective strength would overcome their collective weaknesses.  The time had come for faith.

And you know what?

They were SPECTACULAR.

If you would like to take a moment to watch--here is their video.  When you watch it you might be surprised to know that several of these kids stepped out onto this floor with serious doubts about this routine and their abilities to execute it.  They still had dozens of unanswered questions.  There were tears and kids throwing up in the bathroom just 90 minutes before this moment.  Some of the choreography is so new that this is only the third time it was performed.  But nonetheless, they were still able to make a decision to trust each other and their coach enough to surrender their minds and hearts and become ONE BODY, working together in harmony.  What you are seeing is faith. It is not perfect, but it is nonetheless beautiful and electrifying--and everyone in that arena felt it.

I am so grateful for the unorthodox members who ask bold and colorful questions.  They stretch me and make me think. They make me better because they challenge me to explore hard questions and never be complacent.  They will make all of us better if we let them.

And I am so grateful for our leaders who teach me and who anchor me with their examples and their testimonies of Jesus Christ.  Their words infuse my life with hope and faith and have given me light in some of my darkest hours.  Even though I recognize that they are very human, I have a deep respect for and testimony of who they are and what they have been called to do in this life.

We are one.  And we are, all of us, a formidable team. 

  



Monday, March 3, 2014

Prayer, Love, and Homosexuality

I have a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head that need to come out.  And these thoughts are about what has become a highly sensitive and volatile issue in our society and especially in my Church--homosexuality and morality and human rights and how these things intermingle.  This is a topic that I have pondered quietly in my heart for years, but I have only discussed it in safe spaces with my closest friends and family members.  But I feel compelled to write about it now and to "step up to the microphone" in a public way.

Much of what is prompting my words at this time is a Facebook exchange my husband had earlier this week with a fellow Mormon.  In response to all of the commotion in Arizona over the "right to discriminate" bill (which was thankfully and, to us, unexpectedly vetoed by the Governor) Matt posted this as his status:  "Wait. Jan Brewer doing the right thing? What strange new world is this? Did she get abducted by aliens and undergo a brain transplant?"

Although Matt's comments weren't intended to be about homosexuality but rather about the bill in question and Jan Brewer, nonetheless, the discussion went there right away when this comment was made:

"Matt.  I am in disbelief at your comments here.  Sex outside of marriage is wrong.  God commanded Adam and Eve to multiply and replenish the earth.  If everyone were gay it would destroy Gods plan.  Cities have been destroyed by God for the sins that you appear to be a chearleader(sic) for."

There is much more, but our fellow Mormon ended with this:  

"Your possition(sic) on this is beyond disgusting. You know better."

We were getting ready for bed when this exchange occurred.  Matt never did share his position about homosexuality, or much about anything beyond his initial comment, mostly because he was too busy asking our friend not to condescendingly put words in his mouth.  We were both shocked by the lack of respect in his tone and words.  When it turned ugly I encouraged Matt to take the high road and bow out, which he did.

My husband climbed into bed with me and put his arms around me and asked, "Do you think I am a 'beyond disgusting cheerleader for sin'?"  

I said, "Of course not."  And in the darkness we talked about many things because that is what we do and that is why I know his heart and why he knows mine.   

All of this has inspired me to share my own spiritual journey with this issue of homosexuality.

About a decade ago I was pregnant with our second daughter, Sydney.  This was my first pregnancy in the Seattle area, and so we asked a family member who works in the medical field if she could recommend a good doctor.  She asked around and soon I was referred to Dr. Cedar Finkle-Weaver at the Three Tree Women's Clinic at Highline Medical Center.

After seeing Dr. Finkle-Weaver several times I was extremely happy with her.  I found her to be very professional, sensitive, and personable, and I was very satisfied with the care I was receiving.  It was a few months in to my pregnancy that I also found out that Dr. Finkle-Weaver was gay.

Many people might find this to be strange, but growing up as a Mormon girl in Idaho and then going to BYU for school, I had never had a meaningful relationship with a gay person before Dr. Finkle-Weaver.  Or if I had, I didn't know it because they weren't openly gay.  So for me, this was new territory and brought up new and interesting questions to which I felt I needed answers.

I had always been taught that homosexuality was wrong.  There was really no nuance to it--and I had never asked for nuance.  But suddenly I found myself in a situation where my doctor was gay, and because of everything I had been taught growing up, I wondered whether or not I should continue to see her.  

To be clear, I was never concerned about whether or not her being gay would affect her ability to be professional as a doctor.  Certainly not.  Even though I found myself to be the recipient of some inappropriate comments by family members who were trying to be funny--comments that I don't think would be made now, even just a decade later. 

I was concerned about her being gay because I believed that we "vote with our dollars" and that by choosing her as my doctor I was choosing to support a lifestyle that I had been taught was morally wrong.  

And so, I did what I had been taught to do all of my life when facing a difficult question:  I prayed.

I fully expected that God would validate my feelings of moral superiority and that I would need to find a new doctor.  And I was prepared to do it because I was prepared to do the right thing.  

I believe that God answers prayers.  I know He does.  And I am very grateful that I was just humble enough a decade ago that I heard an answer that was much different than the answer I expected.

As I prayed and pondered over this issue over many days, the answer came quietly, but powerfully, that I should continue to see Dr. Finkle-Weaver.  The thought also entered my mind and my heart that if I would stop being so judgmental, there were things for me to learn from her.  

So I went back, and the next time I was in her office I noticed things I had never noticed before.  There were beautiful poems on the wall.  There were lovely and happy crayon drawings.  There were pictures of smiling children.  As I looked around I saw evidence of great love. Yes, there were things for me to learn from her indeed.

A few years later I was pregnant again.  I was 16 weeks into my pregnancy when I went in for a checkup and Dr. Finkle-Weaver couldn't find the baby's heartbeat.  We were all hopeful that the baby was just in a strange position, so we called Matt and to come and she sent me down to the ER so that they could do an ultrasound and know for sure. 

Sadly, the ultrasound confirmed our worst fears.  I was emotionally devastated and overcome by a sudden and profound grief.  I found myself being wrapped in blankets by nurses and wheeled around in a wheelchair.  Many nurses came to try to say things to comfort me, but it seemed the more people talked at me, the more sad I became.  Matt held my hand and we cried together.  

By that time it was well after office hours, but when Dr. Finkle-Weaver was notified, she came anyway.  And I still remember that when I heard her voice in the hallway I was immediately comforted.  I don't know why, but she was the only one, other than Matt, who could calm me that day.  She walked me through everything that would need to happen, and she was there for me every step of the way.  

And she was there for me again when the same thing happened six months later.  To this day I am so grateful to her for the love she showed to me as she helped me through two consecutive and devastating miscarriages. I am also thankful that I didn't let my limited judgement about the kind of person she was get in the way finding out who she actually was.  

Over the next few years I continued to ponder the issue of homosexuality in my heart as things like Proposition 8 happened and as old friends and even missionaries I had served with came out as being gay.  When an elder from my mission came out as being gay I approached him on Facebook saying, "Help me understand . . . " and I admire him for being brave enough to share his experiences and his faith with me.

Around that time I found myself praying for more clarity.  Because of my Mormon faith there are so many questions.  Questions to which I still do not have answers.  But long ago I accepted that we don't always need to have ALL of the answers--that there is a realm of the unknown that we can honor and respect as we patiently grow in wisdom and knowledge.

I believe that God answered one of my prayers in a profound and direct way, and that answer guides and informs all my other beliefs and actions surrounding this issue.  For now, this one answer is enough for me.

I was praying one day about something that I had read when I felt an overwhelming love enter my heart. I remember the thought coming clearly into my mind that "God loves His gay children" and I felt the Spirit of God testifying profoundly that this was true.  I know in that moment that I felt a small portion of that love, and it was one of the most powerful things I have ever felt.  I have felt this again and again as I remember this experience and as I have been privileged to develop meaningful relationships with gay friends, both in and out of my church.   

I do not have all the answers, but this I do know--God loves his gay children and there is a place for them in His plan.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ is for all of us or it is for none of us.  When Christ was on the earth He set a profound example for us by reaching out to the groups of people who were outcasts at the time--lepers, Samaritans, adulterers and all kinds of people who were seen by the "righteous" people as unworthy.  I believe this is a pattern that has application here.

I am distressed by the venom surrounding this issue.  At how often and how quickly it turns ugly, as in the Facebook exchange my husband experienced this week.  

I keep waiting to hear about someone else's spiritual journey--about unexpected answers to prayers, about their mind being enlightened, about love entering their heart.  I believe this is happening for people--but that they are too afraid to share these tender experiences because they are sacred and personal, because they don't want them to be trivialized by other people's political agendas, and because no one wants to be labeled as a "beyond disgusting cheerleader for sin."

But this week, I again felt that quiet voice in my heart, this time whispering to me that it is time to stop being afraid.  

It is possible that I have it all wrong.  As I said, there is a lot I don't yet know and don't yet understand.  But if I am going to err on this issue, I am going to err on the side of love and compassion.  I'm going to do the best I can with the knowledge that I have received as a result of my own experiences and trust answers to sincere prayers--because I care more about what God thinks of me than what other people might think of me.

Today I invite you to share your faith experiences in the comments section either at the end of this blog or on Facebook, especially as they relate to learning to love someone who is different than you.  I hope that this will be a safe space where we can learn from each other.