Roses

February 21, 2009

Today was the first Saturday in a long time when the weather was nice enough to work outside, and it was nice not to be sick.

We moved into this house about a month ago, and the one thing that has been bugging me is the strip of overgrown rose bushes along the driveway. They had to have been at least 9 feet tall, and they were all twisted and snarled, with smaller shoots woven into the larger, mostly dead ones.

Not only were the rose bushes ugly (it’s winter, after all), but you could not get in and out of the car without snagging your clothes on a thorn.

So, armed with a new pair of hand clippers and leather gloves, I started on the bush closest to the house. Before I started, I read up on rose pruning (thanks, Google), so I knew that you had to cut just above a new bud on each branch.

It was slow going, and even with the gloves, my wrists and forearms were soon scratched and poked. The first bush took almost 45 minutes to prune. There were so many small shoots that were tightly wrapped around the larger branches and each other, but I wanted to get it right. So I looked carefully for new buds, the small red bumps standing out from the green stems. But for a lot of time, I just cut at will on the dead brown branches, the dried leaves and shriveled orange-brown rose hips drooping sadly toward the ground.

A neighbor had told me he makes rose hip jelly, but I thought these were way too far gone. As I was finishing up the first bush, an elderly woman walked by, pulling a wagon with two small boys. She stood in the driveway for a good 15 minutes telling me about her daughter, who had herniated a disk in her spine, which explained why she was caring for the two boys.

“It’s going to take a couple of days for you to get these bushes cut,” she said, and at that point I thought she was probably right. But when she left, I started back in on the roses. A few of the branches on the driveway side had little tufts of polyester batting and small shards of fabric, evidence of kids who hadn’t made a clean exit from the car.

Three hours later, I was done, and my green-waste can was filled to overflowing. The roses now stand a more-or-less uniform 18 inches or so, and they no longer look like the final scene of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (parents like me will know what I’m talking about).

I was pretty pleased with myself, and when my sister called from California, she said I sounded happier than the last time we had spoken. She brought up religion, and she said that I seem to have gotten to a good place regarding Mormonism. “It’s OK to be angry or hurt about the church when those feelings are warranted,” she said, “but you don’t want to be angry and hurt all the time. It doesn’t sound like you are anymore.”

No, I’m really not. A friend sent me a rather scathing letter the other day about my religious beliefs, and I think I would have reacted rather badly had I received that letter a couple of years ago. As it was, I just politely responded that I did not wish to discuss religious issues with that friend anymore.

Imagine that: just saying and thinking, “I don’t want to talk about that anymore.” Maybe the thorns in my life, many of them of my own making, are clearing away. It will take more than an afternoon, and definitely more than a pair of hand clippers, but I can see the roses amid the thorns. That’s a good start.

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I hate Mormons

February 19, 2009

At least that’s what a reader tells me. Apparently, this guy, who fancies himself a modern Danite, has a web site http://mormonhatershow.blogspot.com/. He lists a few of the usual suspects (Steve Benson, Shawn McCraney, and Bill McKeever) and someone named Ruben Israel, with whom I am not familiar. Anyway, it’s odd that he missed Bill Keller, who hates Mormons more than anyone I know.

I’m not sure if the guy’s comment means I’ve joined the pantheon of Mormon-haters or not. I suppose he’ll let me know.


Buttars!

February 19, 2009

I’m sure most of my readers have heard about the audio tape of Utah state Senator Chris Buttars riffing on his hatred of gays. Thanks to him, I now know the definition of “pig sex” (and I really didn’t want to know). Clearly, the distinction between hating the sin and loving the sinner is as blurry as it ever was. Suffice it to say that Buttars hates gays.

Anyway, it’s not surprising to learn that Buttars thinks that gays are the “greatest threat to America” and that tolerance of homosexuals is a sign that the Second Coming is near. But reading the comments over on the KSL web site, I wonder if Buttars is just giving voice to what a lot of people think but are too embarrassed to say out loud.

To me, Buttars’s outburst and the widespread support he’s getting signal that we are not yet a tolerant society. In polite society we talk about equal rights and tolerating diversity, but in our private, unguarded moments we let slip how we really feel. Buttars, on the other hand, seems to be missing the gene that tells you what you can safely say in public. And in a strange way, I’m grateful for the cretinous Senator. He’s a daily reminder that we have a lot of work to do before we can say we are a free and tolerant country.


Disconnected

February 16, 2009

Over the weekend we had some issues with our Internet service, and from Saturday afternoon until this morning, we had no Internet at all. Suddenly no one knew what to do with themselves. Kids kept telling me, “Dad, there’s nothing to do!” I mean, how are we supposed to illegally download movies and music?

I hadn’t realized how dependent I am on the Internet until I couldn’t figure out how to get a phone number I needed, as the paper phone book was squirreled away in a box somewhere during the move.

Think about it. No facebook. No updated news and sports scores. No up-to-the-minute weather. No youtube. No message boards. And worst of all, no blogging.

Of course, no blogging is probably a good thing, given that on any random day, I have almost nothing of value to say.

But it feels good to be connected again.


Playing Nice

February 13, 2009

I’ve been thinking lately how we ex-Mormons are often lumped together as a rather nasty, bitter sort of people full of hate. Tne “Recovery from Mormonism” board is routinely described on Mormon boards as being a “cesspool” of hate, mental illness, and irrationality. I’m sure these descriptions annoy you as much as they do me, as the descriptions, to me, signal more a need for certain people to marginalize and discredit us as evil apostates.

That said, I understand the hurt, the anger, and even the bitterness many of us feel, and I think getting it out of our systems is a good thing. Eventually, it passes, and most of us can move on with some degree of peace. I know that, for the most part, I am more at peace with myself than I ever was before.

But sometimes I think we’re guilty of doing the same thing in reverse to Mormons. Certainly there are aspects of the religion and its teachings that many of us find destructive and abhorrent, and rightly so. I’m sure we all understand just what the church can do to your psyche. But sometimes in casting off those undesirable aspects, we lump individual Mormons in with the general behavior, even if it’s not deserved.

I try to put myself in the position of members when I talk to them. How would I have responded, knowing what I was taught in the church? I probably would have assumed, as many do, that apostasy comes from sin or offense or lazinss, or whatever. Not because I myself am the kind of judgmental jerk who would jump to that conclusion, but because the church taught me that is why people leave. I would have had a disconnect between the person I know, and the alleged reasons for leaving.

In short, I’m saying that I need to be better about cutting church members a break. Yes, some people are nasty and vicious, but I’m not talking about them. Rotten people are in and out of the church. But I am trying to see the difference between intentionally cruel behavior and the conditioned reactions that people have toward us. It isn’t their fault, really, that they absorbed some toxic teachings. Look at that priesthood lesson in this year’s manual about how awful we apostates are. How could someone be taught that all their lives and not absorb it?

Anyway, I’m not excusing bad behavior, but trying to figure out how best to respond when people perhaps unwittingly fall victim to stereotyping of us evil apostates.


Sick

February 10, 2009

I don’t think you appreciate the everyday normality of life until something interrupts the routine. Sometimes these are major disruptions, such as the accident I’ve written about that has changed so many lives. I know that the survivors of the accident carry scars both physical and emotional that will remain the rest of their lives.

I was going to write about how much it sucks to be as sick as I am, but the first thing I thought about was how having this admittedly nasty flu doesn’t compare to what others have been through.

But I’m going to whine anyway. I’ve been sick since Friday, and only today am I feeling even slightly better.

I think I’m going back to bed.


The Double-Whammy

February 5, 2009

I’ve been mulling over these ideas for a number of years and have finally written them down. What do you think?

Several years ago I attended the dedication of the Mount Timpanogos Temple. Being at that time the executive secretary in our ward, I got tickets to sit in the celestial room during that session of the dedication. My wife and I ended up sitting in the third row, maybe six feet away from the podium at which stood the prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley. I will never forget what he said as he rose to speak to all of us. “Your being here at this temple tells me that you are the best people in the world.” He paused and added, “If you were honest in your recommend interviews.”

That statement encapsulates to me one way the church manages to keep its members committed and dedicated. Like a fish hook embedded in the mouth of a cutthroat trout, the church uses two seemingly contradictory premises to keep its members on the line:

1. You are better than “the world.”

2. You are not good enough.

Let’s look at these two beliefs. We’ve all heard people bear their testimonies of how much the church has blessed their lives and made them happier and more successful than they otherwise would have been. “I can’t imagine what my life would be if I didn’t have the church,” they say. And they describe those outside of the church as benighted and unhappy. Here’s Glenn Pace: “Compare the blessings of living the Word of Wisdom to those available to you if you choose to party with those in the great and spacious building. Compare the joy of intelligent humor and wit to drunken, silly, crude, loud laughter. Compare our faithful young women who still have a blush in their cheeks with those who, having long lost their blush, try to persuade you to join them in their loss. Compare lifting people up to putting people down. Compare the ability to receive personal revelation and direction in your life to being tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine. Compare holding the priesthood of God with anything you see going on in that great and spacious building” (Ensign, Nov 1987).

No, we were better than that. We had the truth, and the truth made us free and happy and safe. Gordon B. Hinckley said in 1996, “The greatest safety you have in your lives, my dear young friends, is your membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Cling to the Church and live its principles and I do not hesitate to promise you that your lives will be happy, that your accomplishments will be significant, and that you will have reason to get on your knees and thank the Lord for all He has done for you in giving to you the marvelous and wonderful opportunities that you have” (youth fireside, Vista, California, 23 Mar. 1996).

With such promises behind us, we were told, we could not help to be “a peculiar people,” a shining example to the world of the blessings God had given us. Donald Staheli of the Seventy said, “As you dare to be different, your exemplary conduct will not go unnoticed. Although you will be tried and tested, your faithful adherence to the Lord’s standards will be seen as a beacon in the night to those around you. Have the courage to be different when it is required of you to be true to the standards of the Church. You will be respected for it. And if occasionally you are not respected, you need not worry, because that is not the kind of association you will want or need in your future” (Ensign, Feb. 2009).

So we lived our lives desperately trying to live up to the standards set forth, to truly be examples of the believers so that we could help other people find the happiness we had. And that happiness depended on our church membership. In short, we needed the church to be happy, to be better than the world.

With this belief that we had the truth and that the truth made us happy, we felt a keen need to share our happiness with others. We knew, after all, that those outside our faith could not possibly find the same joy and happiness that we had found in the gospel.

As L. Tom Perry put it, “We are blessed with a great and noble heritage that offers a pathway to truth that veers dramatically from the so-called ways of the world. We need to remind ourselves about the value of our heritage so we do not underestimate its worth. I challenge the many Saints who are hiding in the corners to stand tall and proclaim loudly the treasured teachings of our common heritage, not with a spirit of pride or boasting but with a spirit of confidence and conviction” (Ensign, May 2001).

And we were confident, most of the time. We gladly served missions, invited our friends to church meetings, and looked for “missionary opportunities” in our everday lives. As President Hinckley put it, we conformed, and we thought we found happiness in that conformity. In short, we knew we needed the church to make us happy, to turn us into the “best people in the world.”

But something nagged at us. We knew we had the truth, the gospel that could bring us true joy, but we never quite felt good enough. Even at our most successful moments in life, we always felt like we should have done even more. We felt this way because, coupled with the idea that church membership brings happiness above and beyond what the world can give was the teaching that we could always do better.

Most of us, I would imagine, have been subjected to withering criticism from our church leaders for poor statistical performance or other perceived failures. I’ve written about the excitement I felt at learning that we would be hearing from a General Authority when I was on my mission, the only time during those two years that I would be in the presence of one of the Lord’s representatives. The man who spoke to us literally yelled at us for almost an hour, berating our poor performance, lack of commitment, and general laziness. My companion and I were crushed, but later we convinced ourselves that he was right: it didn’t matter how hard we were working; it wasn’t enough.

And so it is beyond missionary work. Since the days of President Kimball’s call to “lengthen your stride,” we have been told that we need to be better, to do better. The Lord is not satisfied with subpar numbers, and neither should we. Back in 1998, Russell Ballard held up President Hinckley as a model of hard work and dedication: “President Hinckley is doing all that he can do to accelerate the work. He is traveling the world to an unprecedented degree to strengthen and edify the Saints and to urge them upward and onward. … Our President is dynamically out in front, showing the way. The question we must all ask ourselves is, ‘Are we keeping pace with him?’ Each one of us must be prepared to answer that question. I can assure you that it is a subject of considerable discussion among the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. I hope the same is true of every council in every ward and stake in the Church. This is not the time to relax or to coast in our callings. Every council of the Church should be working together on ways to be more effective in preparing our members to be worthy to enjoy all the blessings of the Church and especially the blessings of the temple” (Ensign, Nov 1998).

Of course we all knew that our meager efforts could not compare to those of the prophet; we knew we did not measure up. So we felt guilty and inadequate.

Guilt in LDS terms is almost always spoken of as a positive, motivating emotion that will help us to repent and improve ourselves. In 1983, the Ensign published some guidelines for church members in choosing a mental-health counselor or therapist. One item stands out: “Does he or she feel that appropriate guilt or sorrow for wrongdoing can help someone make positive changes? (A therapist who feels that guilt itself is the problem may focus inappropriately on changing your feelings rather than on helping you change the behavior that causes the guilty feelings.)” (Ensign, Jan 1983). Notice that the idea that “guilt itself is the problem” is rejected out of hand in favor of “therapy” that focuses on repentance. With the idea of “appropriate guilt” in mind, we begin to understand the idea of guilt as a tool in getting church members to lengthen their strides.

It’s not surprising, then, that in Mormonism, repentance isn’t just a turning away from sins as in some other religions, it’s a painful, soul-wrenching experience. Russell Ballard put it this way: “Sin will always, always, result in suffering. It may come sooner, or it may come later, but it will come. The scriptures state that you will ‘stand with shame and awful guilt before the bar of God’ (Jacob 6:9) and that you will experience ‘a lively sense of … guilt, and pain, and anguish.’ (Mosiah 2:38.) A related misconception is that repentance is easy. President Kimball said that ‘one has not begun to repent until he has suffered intensely for his sins. … If a person hasn’t suffered, he hasn’t repented.’ (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982, pp. 88, 99.) You need only talk to a person who has truly repented of serious sin to understand that the momentary pleasure of an immoral act is simply not worth the pain that always follows” (Ensign, Nov 1990). For whatever reason, when we’re dealing with the Jesus of Mormonism, His yoke is not particularly easy, and his burden is quite heavy.

We were so busy in the church, and we had so much “potential” to live up to, and yet we never felt good enough. We felt guilty for not putting everything we had into our callings. We felt responsible for everything from the failure of a ward social to an occasional “impure thought.” We were even counseled to assess our part of the blame even when we were victimized by someone else. Richard Scott said, “At some point in time, however, the Lord may prompt a victim to recognize a degree of responsibility for abuse. Your priesthood leader will help assess your responsibility so that, if needed, it can be addressed. Otherwise the seeds of guilt will remain and sprout into bitter fruit” (Ensign, May 1992).

So here we were with this unsolvable conundrum: how can we not be good enough or happy enough when we have the tools to make us both happier and better people?

The answer to both was simple: we needed the church. We needed the church and its teaching and programs to keep us better and happier than the rest of the world. And we needed the church to make us better and happier than we currently were.

It was a kind of carrot-and-stick approach to life, as if we were strapped into a harness with the carrot of happiness and perfection ahead of us, always out of reach, but with the stick of worldliness behind us, threatening to bruise us and damage us.

In the end, we never got to the happiness, and we were left with the guilt and remorse of our failures. And that, ironically, is what kept us in the church.