Monday, September 21, 2015

Pragmatic Prayer

(Artist: Mariam Soliman)

While reading some comments on social media concerning prayer, I’ve found that too many of my fellow believers and non-believers have sorely lost sight of the function of prayer.

You don’t have to hear a prayer to become the solution. If you simply lack the inspiration, pray. You may find the answer in becoming the answer. The power of prayer doesn’t lie in mysticism nor should the power of prayer be dismissed with cynicism. The power of prayer lies within our agency when we use and create technologies that empower us to act.

Before discussing prayer, I’d like to address agency. In Mormonism, agency is “
…the ability and privilege God gives us to choose and to act for ourselves. Agency is essential in the plan of salvation.”

We are granted agency to act as autonomous individuals. Agency allows us to govern ourselves and allows for optimal growth and development in our endeavors to become compassionate creators. With agency also comes the risk of suffering.

2 Nephi 2:27 reads, “Wherefore, men are free according to their flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.”

Along with articulating the risks and rewards of agency, Nephi offers a warning that Satan desires us to be miserable. As the narrative goes, “One primary issue in the conflict between God and Satan is agency. Agency is a precious gift from God; it is essential to His plan for His children. In Satan’s rebellion against God, Satan “sought to destroy the agency of man” (Moses 4:3). He said: “I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost,” (Moses 4:1).

Accordingly, God will not intervene on humanity’s agency as it would be in direct conflict with the purpose of our existence. Intervention was Satan’s plan—the plan of misery. If one believes that God is in control then God has relinquished that power in allowing us ultimate governance and stewardship.

As autonomous agents we are at risk for grand consequences—positive and negative consequences that we cannot escape. If we decide to build weapons of mass destruction to annihilate each other, God will not, and has not, intervene on our agency. We will kill each other. We may find ourselves asking, why would any loving God allow so much suffering, pain, and death in this world? Why do children painfully starve to death? Why does cancer have to exist? What about racism, slavery, sexism, heterosexism, violence, war, global warming, or terrorism? Doesn’t God here our prayers?

Suffering is as inescapable a consequence when each of us is endowed with the power of agency.  We can use that power to create or destroy. When we hurt and destroy, when we are idle and useless, when we are apathetic and careless, we will suffer, as will those around us.

In Nephi we read, “there is an opposition in all things”. Can we ever experience joy without sadness? Can we know peace without anger? Can we feel strength without weakness? One without the other becomes meaningless. This life is full of undeniable opposition. However, God doesn’t intervene and stop our suffering anymore that God would intervene and stop our joy. To intervene would be to hinder our evolutionary progress.

What a terrifying, yet beautifully empowering idea to comprehend ourselves as individual agents. We are responsible and accountable not just for ourselves, but for one another through the consequences of agency. We are our brother’s keeper.

But some of you may ask yourselves, what is the point of prayer if God won’t intervene? Is prayer useful even if we omit God from the equation?

Prayer is practical and useful when carried out with real intent. I must admit, I recently commented to one of my atheist friends that even in times when I have been apathetic toward the existence of God, I have continued the ritual of prayer. There are simply far too many benefits, even if I am the only one hearing them. One benefit of prayer is the verbal expression of gratitude. As Paul noted to the Colossians, “Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving.” Prayer is a time to reflect on the grand and vast abundance of life in the spirit of appreciation. Even if you are disinclined to acknowledge God, the daily ritual of prayerful gratitude can increase your mental health and well-being.

Prayer is also a ritual of empathy that causes us to reflect on how to better improve humanity by receiving inspiration when pondering the concerns and needs of others. When we pray and meditate, our minds can access inspired opportunities to serve one another.

Moroni 7: 9 states, “And likewise also is it counted evil unto man, if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such.” But what does Moroni mean when he says to pray “with real intent”?

To understand prayer with “real intent”, I am reminded of the words of Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, “When our wagon gets stuck in the mud, God is much more likely to assist the man who gets out to push than the man who merely raises his voice in prayer—no matter how eloquent the oration.”  We should not pray and passively wait. We should pray and get to work. When prayers are said with genuine intent, our works will reflect our intentions. Our prayers are far more valuable and effective when coupled with action.

Unfortunately, prayer can be mistakenly used as an idle stool people passively sit upon while waiting for God’s interventions. If you are praying in repetitious vanity for supernatural answers then you are sorely misinterpreting the function of prayer. We cannot insensibly pray and expect God to do the work when we are endowed with the power of agency. I’m inclined to believe that “the power of our prayers depends on us”.

Too many make the mistake of waiting on God to answer our prayers when surely it is God who is waiting on us!

I deeply value the influence of prayer in my life as an expression of gratitude, recognition of empathy, and ritual of inspiration.

My husband and I encountered many difficulties in having our three children. During the pregnancy of our daughter, I was faced with life-threatening risks. A couple of weeks before my scheduled c-section, I prayed with a genuine desire that my daughter and I would survive. I wanted nothing more than to be her mother.

Coupled with my prayer were my efforts. I researched the risks of my pregnancy, equipped myself with the best available physicians, and took advantage of latest medical technologies—which, I’ll admit, were a product of my affluent privilege. But even with my works and privilege I was still unable to safely deliver my baby alone.

The answer to my prayer came in the form of compassionate physicians, technologists, and specialists. They not only saved my daughter, but they saved me. God did not compel these people to be saviors. God did not part the skies and safely rest my daughter in my arms. No, humanity, God’s children, took it upon themselves to use their agency to be the body of Christ. They became the answers to prayers they had never heard.

How many times in your life have you had another person be an answer to a humble prayer or desire in your heart? Perhaps it was a parent or a friend? Perhaps it was a spiritual leader or a teacher? Or maybe even a child? Did you take the time to notice?

Who’s prayers will you answer? Who’s lives will you touch? How will you use your agency? How will you use your privilege? How many missed opportunities have idly gone by while waiting on God to intervene on our agency?

Too often I hear, “Why doesn’t God answer the prayers of the starving children?” When what we should be asking ourselves, “How can we answer the prayers of the starving children?”

They ask, “Why does God not save the dying woman from cancer?” When we should be asking, “How can we save the dying woman from cancer?”

You don’t have to hear a prayer to become the solution. If you simply lack the inspiration, pray. You may find the answer in becoming the answer. The power of prayer doesn’t lie in mysticism nor should the power of prayer be dismissed with cynicism. The power of prayer lies within our agency when we use and create technologies that empower us to act.

Friday, September 18, 2015

When the Temple Hurts

I was 18, engaged, and excited to go to the temple. I don’t regret marrying young, nor the person I married. If I were ever going to be a mother, I knew this man was going to be the father. After 13 years of marriage, he’s everything I could have hoped for.

I was told since a primary child that the temple was the House of the Lord and there are no greater blessings than that of the temple. I was apprehensive and had my doubts, but I had the desire.

I prepared myself by writing in my “Temple Journal”. It had a hardcover trimmed in gold with a photo of Christ knocking on a wooden door. I would go to the temple grounds with my journal, read my scriptures, and speculate on the beautiful architecture. I wrote my ideas and thoughts about the temple, what I would hear, how I would feel, and my desire to be sealed to my fiancé. It was filled with pages of questions, quotes, song lyrics, and photographs. I took it with me to my temple prep class that I attended at BYU with my fiancé and felt ready for the experience.

I am curious by nature and was eager to get answers to my questions in the temple. I was also told the temple was a House of Learning and I was ready to learn.

Then the big day came.

I was surprised by the initiatory. The old woman with me looked like she had been doing this since the dawn of time. She had crisp white hair that matched her dress and shoes. She smiled unceasingly with rosy cheeks. I liked her warm crackling voice and the way she called me “dear”. It reminded me of my grandma. I didn’t feel ashamed being “immodest” with her. I don’t remember all the exact words she spoke but I felt comfort and strength.

After the initiatory, I was instructed to put on my garments. They didn’t fit and I didn’t care for the way the fabric felt on my skin, but I figured if millions of other Mormons wore them, so could I.

When the endowment session began, I was thankful for the darkness. For some reason I had this illusive feeling that everyone was watching me. I chalked it up to first time jitters. I wanted to sink in my chair and eagerly take in the beautiful knowledge I was promised. I liked the beginning and enjoyed seeing a more religious perspective of the creation despite its inaccuracies, but as the session wore on I had more and more questions with fewer and fewer answers.

So many of the practices and covenants seemed illogical and futile. I had questions, but no one to talk to. Everyone sat there silently, obediently. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting in this house of learning, but it was certainly not this. Questions continued to bombard my mind in the silence.

Was I meant to simply regurgitate information in a systematic pattern? Why was my fiancé making covenants to God, and why was I making promises to “hearken to” my future husband? Am I not worthy to covenant to God directly? When are they going to talk about why men can still be sealed to multiple women? I’m sure there is a reasonable explanation. Why can’t I sit by my fiancé? Why are we segregated? What does a priestess do if she doesn’t hold the Priesthood authority equitably with her husband? Why must I veil my face? I feel like I can hardly breathe under here! What was that last part? Wait, I just promised to give my life to the Church, and not God? Is there going to be a Q&A later where I could ask my questions? Why can’t my fiancé tell me his temple name, but I must tell him mine? Is God sexist or just my religion? When are we going to talk about Heavenly Mother? Surely we will learn more about Her in the temple. If She’s not here in the temple, where is She? Why would God require these rituals for a person’s salvation? How do these performances have any significant impact on saving our ancestors?

With each layer of clothing I donned, I felt imprisoned by promises I was ill-prepared to make. I felt the tangible oppression on my body and wanted to rip it off and burst out of the room. I fantasized that spectacle would be far more bearable than what I was doing.

Amid the screaming in my head there was nothing but silence around me, just the wrestling of white polyester fabrics. I thought I might vomit on the white carpet beneath my slippers.

Then I vividly heard the words “of your own free will and choice” come across the speakers and my screaming mind ceased. Free will? You mean I have a choice? I can leave? But as quickly as the question was asked there was no waiting for my response. I looked up to make eye contact with someone—anyone—but no one looked my way. I supposed the question was rhetorical. It was clear leaving was not a socially acceptable option. I couldn’t bring myself to walk out of the oversized doors at the back of the room, but I also couldn’t bring myself to utter the word “yes.” So I stood there and bowed my head in silence.

I was broken. No chance to ask questions. No room for a doubter. No room for anything but submissive compliance. No room for me.

Nothing I read or did prepared me for the endowment session. I have felt many moments of sexism at church as a youth and was told, “It’s the culture, not the Church”, “Well, some priesthood holders don’t exercise their authority righteously”, “You just had one bad experience”, or “We just don’t understand the will of God”. But that’s exactly why I came to the temple—to understand. I did what was asked of me with a sincere heart, with true intent and earnest desire, but there it was in the middle of our most sacred house of worship: sexism.

By the end of the session I was exhausted. We went into the celestial room with family and friends who smiled and congratulated me with enthusiasm. I could only smile and nod. I was still nauseous.

A friend came by and congratulated me. I pulled her aside inconspicuously to ask her a couple of my questions. As I began to speak she quickly shushed me and politely told me I shouldn’t talk like that in the temple. I was extremely confused. I couldn’t understand the boundary between sacred and secret when there was no communication. I honestly meant no harm or disrespect in my questions, but the message was clear—no more questions.

When I went back to the women’s locker room I wished to talk to the old woman from the initiatory, but she wasn’t there.

I kept my head high and went into the changing room. No sooner had I closed the metal door to the tiny stall, I burst into silent sobs. I felt like I was a victim of some archaic initiation ritual. I changed my clothes and left, vowing to never return.

I found my fiancé outside smiling, beaming with joy for his bride to-be. He wrapped his arms around me, but I couldn’t lift my arms to reciprocate his embrace. I was his defeated helpmeet. Being a good man, he noticed my indifference to his affections and wrapped my arms around him for me. I was grateful. I wasn’t upset with him. I was upset all my doubts and concerns from the moment I entered Young Women were confirmed in the temple.

I was ready and wanting to marry him. I just wasn’t ready to marry my religion.

When I got home I opened my “Temple Journal” to the first page where I had written the lyrics of “I Love to See the Temple”. I read the words one last time, ripped out the pages and threw the entire journal into the trash. All my hopeful questions and righteous desires to have a better understanding of my religion were rubbish. I was deceived and heartbroken.

The night before our wedding, I begged my fiancé to elope with me. I didn’t care about being married in the temple anymore—I only cared about marrying him. However, he was an undeniably devout Mormon. He believed it and I didn’t. After hours of discussion, he respectfully listened to my concerns while I explained to him that Mormonism meant something completely different to me than it did to him. I needed him to know if we were ever going to work that religion could never be a wedge that would drive us apart.

My love for him was far stronger than my anger toward my religion and I agreed to a return to the temple for our sealing.

 I’ve never regretted my decision to marry him, and I would do it a thousand times over if that’s what it took to be with him.

Roughly four years passed until I would agree to return to the temple. My husband was concerned and wanted me to find peace within the temple. I agreed and we decided to go to the temple at least once a month for an entire year. The closest temple was an hour away, but we committed to do it together.

He patiently answered my questions and tried to help me see a more nuanced interpretation of the endowment session. It was helpful, but there was only so much that could be explained away. Too many symbols insinuated I was secondary to my husband in the eyes of the Mormon God. I know my husband didn’t see it that way, but I did. Too many of the rituals seemed like a pointless exercise to commit myself to a religion that was quickly losing credibility with me. The sexism was too pervasive and I found the absolutist perspective of the temple being the singular path to the Celestial Kingdom so utterly exclusive and prideful. Why would God favor Mormons above any other religion? If I really cared about my dead ancestors, shouldn’t I be working toward a better future for my posterity? If I really wanted to save humanity, shouldn’t I be in the trenches working with them instead of sitting idly in a temple?

My husband noticed the pain, anger, frustration, and suffering the temple caused me. At the end of the year he didn’t ask me to return to the temple. He continued to attend regularly, because it brought him peace and comfort. I was more than willing to support him in his religious beliefs, just as he agreed to support me in mine. I had no intention in condemning or ridiculing a religious ritual that inspired him to be a better human being.

It’s been over five years since I last attended the temple, and for me, healing and reconciliation has come from letting go of the temple. No longer having a temple recommend as been a burden lifted—like brick removed from my wallet. And strangely, it has allowed me to embrace God and Mormonism in ways that I never thought I would.

*Published at Feminist Mormon Housewives on Friday, September 18, 2015