Wednesday, September 13, 2017

To the Wild and Brokenhearted

This talk was given as part of the Auburn, WA Stake Conference on June 24, 2017.  It was published here on September 13, 2017.

Several weeks ago I attended my first Stake Council meeting as part of my relatively new role as Stake Director of Public Affairs.   In this meeting, we were discussing the Area Plan, and specifically, how our Stake is performing on some of the key indicators. 

If you are unfamiliar with the Area Plan, it is kind of like a Strategic Plan for our part of the world.  The vision expressed in the plan is beautiful, and in my opinion, encapsulates what it means to be a member of this church in this day and age.  The vision is to “Become, and help others to become, true followers of Jesus Christ and enjoy the blessings of the holy temple.”  I love that it focuses on our relationship with Christ, and helping others to develop a relationship with Him, and to seek the peace and rich blessings of the temple.

There are four priorities, which include:
  • Live the gospel of Jesus Christ.
  • Gather Israel through missionary work.
  • Care for the poor and needy.
  • Enable the salvation of the dead by identifying ancestors and performing vicarious temple ordinances for them.

The first time I read this plan last fall, I immediately began to think about things I could do in my family and in my calling to contribute to this joyful and needed work.  

But to be honest, as I kept reading the plan and got to the “Indicators of Progress,” I became a little discouraged. I was surprised to see that 4 of the 9 items listed were specific to males, and this was troubling to me.

In my family, there are 5 of us, unless you count our dog Cooper, who is fluffy and adorable and barks all the time.  We’ve been working on that.  For 3 years. 

My husband (for whom Cooper is one of life’s severest trials) will tell you that Cooper definitely does NOT count as a member of our family.  Therefore in our family of 5, 80% of us are female.  If you know my husband, you know that he is an absolute rock star of a human being.  But nonetheless, it made me sad that he is the only Longhurst whose progress “counts” on 45% of these indicators; and that my 3 daughters, who are also pretty rad humans, are not represented equally with their male counterparts when considering the Church’s progression.

I shared my concerns candidly with the Stake Presidency.  They were willing to consider my ideas and explore ways that we could, at least in our Stake, begin to track equivalent statistics for women and girls along with those for men and boys.

I am incredibly grateful for leaders who listen.  They didn’t try for a moment to explain my concerns away or to tell me how to feel.  They didn’t try to sweep me into a corner where they didn’t have to deal with me and my “feedback.” Instead they invited me here today to share what is in my heart.  Good leaders are a rare gift in this world, and as members of this Stake we are very lucky. 

As I have prayed and pondered about what I should share, a very clear and very specific message came into my mind and heart.  

I am here today to speak to those of you who feel, or have ever felt, like you don’t count.  I am here to speak to those who feel left out, marginalized, overlooked, forgotten, lonely, not good enough, or who in whatever way feel as if you don’t belong, or that you are not valued.

Maybe, like me, some of these feelings come from trying to find your place as a woman in this Church. Maybe you are trying to find your place as a person of color in the Church, or even in society in general. Maybe you are divorced, or gay, or unemployed, or a single parent.  Maybe you have unconventional political views. Maybe you are sick, or grieving, or don’t have any close friends who live nearby. Maybe you don’t speak English, or don’t speak it very well.  Maybe you have a disability.  Maybe your child does.  Maybe you are struggling with your testimony.  Maybe you are overwhelmed by church history.  Maybe you struggle with your body image and never like what you see in the mirror.  Maybe you are unhappy in your marriage.  Maybe you are exhausted and run down from simply trying to get yourself and your family through the week.  Maybe for one of these reasons, or possibly one of a million more, you feel like you don’t fully belong here as a member of Christ’s Church.

I am here today with a simple message: You are loved. And you are seen. You are valued. And you are needed.

I believe that at some point or another, all of us feel isolated in this Church.  If I’m being honest, the example that I shared of women’s role in the Area Plan is a small example for me, but it made me remember many other times I have not felt included that were deeply painful.  I know that I am not alone in feeling this way at Church.  I believe that this is a Universal experience, but it is really hard to talk about.  

I work at a non-profit organization that teaches ballroom dance to young people.  A few years ago we had a student on one of our teams who was feeling left out.  As the days wore on, his feelings of isolation and exclusion increased, and he was becoming more and more lonely.  Then one day, he made a choice.  Rather than waiting for someone else to include him, he decided to include himself.  Although he felt awkward at first, he began joining conversation circles and making an effort to approach and sit by others.  Over time, his efforts to include himself worked, and soon he felt included by his teammates.  He also became aware of those around him who might be feeling left out and made special efforts to help welcome them.  Sometimes we simply need to have the courage to include ourselves.

And sometimes, including ourselves doesn’t work.  In the Book of Mormon we learn about the prophet Alma, who goes to preach to the Zoramites.  When he gets there, he finds that they have built a tall stage called a Rameumpton, and every week they gather there in their fine apparel and expensive jewelry to boast of how much better they are than their brethren.  We don’t have to look far to find modern day parallels to this situation, and sometimes we see them even within our own church.

Alma and his brethren go and find the poor, who have been cast out. 

They are sad, but this experience has allowed them to be receptive to the message of the gospel. 

In Alma 32:8:
“I behold that ye are lowly in heart, and if so, blessed are ye.” 

We learn later in verse 12 that their humility was a gateway to wisdom.  And that wisdom was the gateway to salvation through the Atonement.

Throughout the scriptures, the Lord asks for a very specific sacrifice from us, that of a “broken heart and a contrite spirit.” Like the poor Zoramites, the sacrifice of a broken heart is the pathway to eternal life through Jesus Christ.

Growing up, I think I was willing to offer a broken heart as long as it didn’t hurt too much. Looking back, I think I wanted to offer more of a slightly cracked or chipped heart than a broken heart.  It has taken me many years to realize that when the Lord says broken heart, it means that your heart really does have to break wide open.  This isn’t pretty and it isn’t fun.  But this is why we are here having this human experience.  We are here so that our hearts can break.  And not just once, but again and again and again.

And as much as we can feel marginalized, cast out, forgotten, and overlooked in these broken-hearted moments, I believe that these are the times that the Lord is closer than ever.  If we will let Him, He is ready to put all of those broken pieces back together, but in a new way.  This is how we grow.  This is the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.  Some of our most painful experiences teach us the most, especially about love and compassion. 

In closing I’d like to share what is quite possibly my favorite poem.  This is a poem about belonging when you feel like you don’t.  This poem is for anyone who feels left out, unworthy, and unloved. 

Wild Geese
By Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I would like to leave you with my testimony that our Savior loves you.  He has created this beautiful earth with so much variety—trees, flowers, mountains, a new sunset each day, giraffes, wolves, bumble bees, raccoons, dolphins, the wild geese, and You.

And like the wild geese, you are uniquely loved exactly as you are. You have an important place in the family of things.

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?


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.