Tag Archives: priesthood

An Open Letter to Sisters of the Church

Dear Sisters,

I still remember the day I went up to my mom and told her that I wanted to be a mom just like her. She immediately became uncomfortable, patted my head, and told me to play outside, but even as a child I could understand that something was wrong. As I grew older and learned more about my role as a man in the Church, I became bitter at the idea that the Church teaches that men cannot hold the sacred office of motherhood, no matter how righteous we are or no matter how much we want it, and, I will admit, I became quite bitter against the Church.

But I was soon blessed with a wonderful marriage to an amazing wife who has taught me that though I may see the fact that men can never hold motherhood unfair, this is all part of God’s divine plan. You see, my wife explained to me that men are still special and wonderful and valued in the Church. She told me how women need to have motherhood because men are already more pure and virtuous than women, and that without motherhood, women wouldn’t have a reason to improve themselves. Just look at all of the women neglecting their children’s needs, she said. Need I look for more proof? I knew in my heart what she taught me was true; after all, the women in Relief Societies often met together for “Enrichment” to improve themselves, away from their families, while the men in the Priesthood quorums rarely ever had any outside activities – we were too busy making a living, building careers and providing for our families to indulge in such things! Women are just generally selfish and self-centered, and they need motherhood to train and domesticate them to be more nurturing and loving. It all suddenly made sense. Men already do so much in the Church, my wife explained with a wink, and imagine if men were priesthood holders and mothers as well? Why, should we expect that men should be bishops and prophets and apostles and mothers and Relief Society Presidents and Primary Presidents? What would be left for the women to do? My mind boggled. I had never thought of it that way before!

I guess what I want to do is apologize for my near-sighted stubbornness. I now understand that motherhood is a great equalizer, and more of a burden — not a blessing — and despite all of your pre-disposed faults, your husbands and fathers love you despite them, and perhaps even because of them. All I ask is just to please remember us little guys, and to respect fatherhood and to treat your husbands with respect. And we’ll hold up our part of the bargain and support you and your important work from afar. The Church teaches us that motherhood is the most important calling of all, and though I wish I could help, and though I wish I could bring my naturally gifted nurturing and caring talents to such an important work, I understand that my place is outside of the home, and I will be blessed for my obedience, no matter how distasteful I may at first find it to be.

Godspeed,

Ted

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The Origin of Standards?

Within every religion lives a tension between authority and personal spirituality. If you veer too much towards the authoritarian side, you have a cult. But if you err too much on just personal spirituality and opinion, you have scrambled, decentralized New Age mumbo-jumbo, not a vibrant religious community. Now, some people like cults (as Creed says in The Office, being a leader is more profitable, but being a member is more fun), and some people really like decentralized New Age stuff, but for most of the people I know, people want a sense of belonging and community, but don’t like it when religious leaders try to tell them what to do with every single aspect of their lives.

Mormonism is no exception when it comes to this tension, which leads to many people trying to define where to draw the line. The recent General Conference tackled this issue in a variety of ways, but of all the talks, I believe Elder Oaks’ talk on “Priesthood lines of communication” and “personal lines of communication” will stand the test of time. Elder Oaks built a model of communication with God that involved two basic lines of communication – Priesthood and personal. Priesthood lines involve how God dictates church-wide changes and instruction. For example, only annointed, faithful leaders have a direct channel to the Priesthood line for changes to their stewardship to prevent any kind of miscommunication or power struggles within the flock. However, for personal situations, circumstances, and instructions, the personal line of communication with God is always open. People can contact God and through the Holy Ghost, they can receive instructions for their own specific lives.

Elder Oaks, of course, presents some caveats. For one, the personal line shouldn’t ever contradict or fight with the Priesthood line. So if God tells the prophet to tell members to say x, you really shouldn’t be getting y. But Elder Oaks also provides some specific instructions to the members not to demand instructions from leaders on every little thing, and also to not abdicate moral decision making to the Brethren. This accomplishes a lot of things – mainly, it forces members to make decisions on their own, but it also (hopefully!) prevents leaders from passing down erroneous, man-made advice as doctrine at the request of members.

This brought up an interesting question to me. What about our “standards”? Are they derived from Priesthood lines or personal lines of communication? My wife says, immediately, “It’s a personal thing.” But what about the For Strength of Youth pamphlet, which encourages members to follow certain standards? Some of the advice is pretty specific, like the (in)famous one pair of earrings only rule. And these standards are most definitely handed down from Priesthood authorities (and most members expect themselves and others to keep those rules).

Others I ask say immediately, “It’s a Priesthood thing.” After all, that’s the whole reason why we have a prophet, right? But then how do we parse Elder Oaks’ talk? What exactly do we have jurisdiction to say that our personal line is more relevant than the Priesthood line (if at all)? The Brethren encourage us to make our own decisions. Are these just empty words, lip service to the concept of agency?

This tension is nothing new; in fact, this last General Conference reeked of it. Despite Elder Oaks telling the members to explicitly not look to the Brethren for specific, individual advice, especially on how to run their families we had:

David M. McConkie of the Sunday School Presidency, who told us that we shouldn’t ask questions that have already been answered in the manuals or scriptures;

Elder Claudio R. M. Costa, who based his talk on a previous talk by Elder Benson, which took a fairly conservative, Priesthood-line-oriented stance on following the prophet (basically, you better if you want to be faithful in any sense of the word);

President Boyd K. Packer, who now infamously warned members to not vote to “legalize immorality”;

and Several other speakers of the Church who warned against, among other things, the “addictive” power of video games (one suggested hiding controllers from the children) and sleepovers, both fairly specific advice.

So where do “standards” come from? We have some pretty official rulings in the Church when it comes to things that require obedience. Faith in God and the Atonement is one thing. Baptism is pretty important. Temple marriage is a huge deal. Church attendance is heavily encouraged. But then we have all of these, for lack of better terminology, “minor” rules, most often refering to dress, how we conduct ourselves, and what various activities are appropriate or not for children. For example, grab a random subset of Mormons and ask them what activities are or are not appropriate for the Sabbath day. You will get a myriad of answers.

Sometimes, we like it that way. After all, personal flexibility is always a good thing when it comes to individual weaknesses and strengths. My wife doesn’t care about earrings or swearing, but she really likes playing video games with her dear husband (as nerdy as it sounds, she feels like our marriage grows closer when I keep her out of danger by healing her in raids), and she hates gore in media (and wishes everyone would stay away from it). That’s just how her spiritual personality operates. And that’s where the trouble comes in. We say the Church should not have to legislate in every little thing. So how come they do, and how come the cultural majority expects us to follow them without question or regard to circumstance? Couldn’t we do away with the rules and stick with our “personal line” interpretation, or shouldn’t we expect our religious community to follow the rules and have specific expectations?

Sometimes, navigating or reconciling the divide seems impossible. But still, we try.

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The Best Standards Night Ever

My bishop growing up was great. A soft-spoken genius of a man, he would impart all kinds of spiritual wisdom on you and then begin to tell you a story about how he got so sick on his mission he was “spewing out of both ends, if you know what I mean.” All of this, of course, with a twinkle in his eye, and a smile on his face. Whenever I think of bishops, I think of this particular bishop because he influenced so much of my teenage years growing up.

Our bishop gave a standards night one fireside that one could never forget. Even though we had all gathered in the chapel, sitting in our pews, instead of standing at the pulpit he paced about in front of us, microphone in hand, imparting witty story after witty story about standards. He didn’t pull the punches about sex, and he even described a moment when, while chaperoning a church-sponsored dance, he caught “the sweet, sweet scent of Mary J.” He was real, he was raw, and he was funny. After the fireside, word of his version of standards night spread throughout the ward and land. There was immense pressure to give an encore performance for those who didn’t make it the first time. So he obliged to have another standards night the next month or so after.

That night, he was met with a packed house. This time, he chose the more intimate setting of the Relief Society Room. We all sat forward in our chairs, eager to laugh at another round of jokes about sex and drugs and modesty from our bishop (of all people). Instead, this wonderful man declared, “I want to talk about virtue today.”

“Yes!” I was thinking. “More stories about dating and sex!” But I was soon to be surprised and disappointed.

“What is virtue?” He posed the question to the group of youth. No one said anything. Even I, the gospel nerd, didn’t have a clear cut answer to this question. What exactly was virtue? How would you define it? Could you even define it?

Our bishop’s answer surprised me even further. He pulled out a picture of the universe.

“This is virtue.”

I sat there, blinking. Puzzled. Space? Galaxies? What does that have to do with virtue at all? Where were the borderline ribald jokes? The winks and nudges?

“This is virtue.”

The picture of the universe as replaced with various pictures of the Creation. Beautiful, yes. Breathtaking even, for some of them. But again, what does this have to do with virtue?

I don’t remember the rest of the talk. I just sat there, stewing in my seat, disappointed and confused. I thought standards night was about rules and regulations, ways to feel smug and reassured that you’re doing the right thing, and most importantly, an opportunity for our cool, hip bishop to entertain us with jokes that resonated with real teenager issues. But instead, I got nature slides and a rather nebulous, incredibly confusing talk about virtue, whatever that meant.

I later told my father (who attended with me) how disappointed I was with the fireside. I didn’t feel like I learned anything at all, and most importantly, where were the jokes? My father sharply rebuked me. “That was the best standards night I’ve ever been to,” he said, implying a silent, You’ll understand when you’re older. Trust me.

Since then, I’ve pondered upon that fireside many a time, and only now do I finally begin to understand. We are the slaves of our own socialization, culture, and upbringing. And whether you love it or hate it, our American Puritan backgrounds have made us terrified of the power of sex. Because of this, many of our standards nights revolve around these issues – when to date, how to date appropriately, how to cover your bodies so that you don’t arouse your opposite sex friends, no pornography, no petting and necking (whatever that meant). Or, we’d talk about hard-hitting teen issues, like drug abuse or gang violence, or even video games, texting, or proper Sunday dress (no flip-flops, ties are mandatory, don’t wear baggy pants, tuck in your shirt).

But very little of this has to do with the power of virtue.

The Doctrine and Covenants reveals a more cosmic, awe-inspiring interpretation of virtue. “Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God and the doctrines of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:45-46, emphasis added). Virtue begins the chain of events which eventually leads to the immortality and exaltation of man, God’s core premise of starting all of this. Virtue is the power of God, the power of Creation itself.

Yes, I suppose sex has something to do with creation, but when you read the traits of virtue listed in the previous verses of section 121, you meet some incredible adjectives – persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned, kindness, pure knowledge, lack of hypocrisy or guile, showing an increase of love toward him who we’ve reproved, faithfulness strong than the cords of death, charity towards all men and to the household of faith. The preceding verses warn against unrighteous dominion, of forceful compulsion, of delusions of grandeur, of hiding wickedness, of pride and gratifying of vain ambitions. All of these add up to the traits of not someone who keeps her skirts below the knee or a man who never dates exclusively. All of them add up to the character of Christ Himself, the source of all good.

So what is standards night? What is virtue? Is it simply just chastity? Prudent socialization with the opposite gender? Covering our nakedness? If we emphasize these points, we miss the mark.

Standards night is about priesthood. It’s about God’s character and power. It’s about creation. It’s about knowledge and confidence and a full understanding of our relationship with Father. It’s about empowering our youth with a sense that they are not simply just hormonal flesh bags that need to be contained and caged like wild, ravenous creatures. And it’s certainly not about building up a thick, thorny hedge about the law to keep our children corralled inside so that the only outlet they might have for honest communication is through jokes and innuendo. It’s about instilling within them the quiet knowledge of respect and confidence that they are destined for great things, and great people need not stoop to such petty and dangerous tactics for a fleeting sense of control in their lives.

That’s what standards night should be all about.

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The Cohab Standards Week

General Conference has come and gone, and all that goodness got me thinking – what exactly do we mean when we talk about “standards?”

Mormons who grew up in the Church know what I mean; every once in a while, the bishopric or some other form of ward leadership will gather the youth together in a fun-filled fireside romp often titled “Standards Night.” Usually, the firesides came in the form of a good old-fashioned pulpit thumpin’ sermon about the length of our skirts, the age of our dating, and the beverages we drink. We talk about all the no-noes in our religion – alcohol, smoking, drugs, immodesty, heavy petting and necking (whatever that means), exclusive dating, the works.

Well, we’re not gonna pound the war drums against texting in church or flip-flops (thank goodness), but for the next week the Cohab will discuss some of the more particular ideas of what standards mean in our Church, inspired by some recent personal experiences and some excellent talks in last General Conference. So without further ado, the schedule:

Where Do Standards Come From? – We’ll open up the interesting question raised by Elder Oaks’ talk about priesthood lines of communication and personal lines of communication. Should we derive standards from personal lines or priesthood lines? Are standards derived as a form of Church administration, or personal worthiness? Is it a mix of both? How can we tell which is which?

The Best Standards Night Ever – My bishop as a youth gave a standards night one month that left everyone rolling in the aisles with tears of laughter. The next month, my bishop announces another standards night which every youth attended, hoping for a repeat performance. Instead, I was bored out of my skull. He never cracked a single joke about drugs and didn’t bring up sex even once. When I mentioned this to my dad, he rebuked my sharply, saying it was the best standards night he’s ever attended. As I grew older, I began to understand why.

Boys will Be Boys – In the same talk, President Gordon B. Hinckley urged young women to only wear one pair of earrings, and for the young men to please, please, pleease pull up our pants and stop wearing them five sizes too big. The next General Conference, speakers talk about boyfriends who break-up with girlfriends who didn’t pull out their extra pair of earrings, but how come we never heard about girlfriends who dumped their boy-toys who refused to stop wearing baggy pants? Is there an unfair advantage for one gender over the other?

Sleep-overs and Video Games Some General Authorities spoke disagreeably about video games and sleep-overs, talking about the general malfeasance inherent in them. But for me, sleep-overs and video games kept me clear out of trouble and squarely in the Gospel. Dare I say, they even helped my testimony from burning completely out. How flexible can standards be before we start our mental gymnastics into apostasy?

Standards, Culture, and Commandments – The Church continues to work eagerly in sending missionaries to China (as does every other proselyting religion). Friends confide in me that because of the presence of our humanitarian missionaries, we already have a large, underground base of support in China, and when the bamboo curtain finally rises, entire swathes of China will baptize overnight. However, even if such rumors are true, we overlook one incredibly important part of Chinese (and most of Asia’s) culture – tea. Where does the Word of Wisdom lie – culture, standards, or commandment? Is there even a difference?

Keep the Flock Safe, Starve out the SinnersWhile I understand the scriptural basis of the practice, denying the Sacrament to those who aren’t “worthy” of it never sat right with me. The Sacrament is a powerful symbol of God’s redemptive and cleansing power. It’s one of the few physical symbols we indulge in as Mormons on a regular basis. What does it say about us when we deny God’s redemptive and cleansing power only after we’ve already become clean? Don’t those who are sick need that power more than the healthy? Do standards prevent us from ministering to the spiritually needy, or do they keep the plague out of the already healthy flock?

As you can see, we’ve got quite the lineup. I hope you stick around for standards week, and bring your copies of the Book of Mormon to place between your partner for the youth dance afterwards!

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But few are chosen

There’s a very interesting article/discussion going on at Feminist Mormon Housewives about how the concept of “priesthood power” can corrupt. The author of the original post, fMhLisa, writes:

My son is very naturally fond of power, if given so much as control of the gum he squeezes every last morsel of clout out of it….I can’t help but think that all the entreaties in the world ‘to lead with persuasion, gentleness and meekness,’ will not be nearly so powerful to a personality such as his, as being in the giddy possession of a power to which his sisters and I have no access.

Of course, some members cried out that if you exercise your priesthood unrighteously, you will lose the powers of heaven, but the more pragmatic members also reminded that when a bishop exercises his priesthood unrighteously, though any spiritual power departs, he can still wield his authority in a tyrannical manner. For example, a woman disagrees with the bishop on how to run a program and is released for having a confrontational attitude towards “the Priesthood.” In the end, the woman has lost her calling, and the bishop is still in power. Such is the way the fallen world works – comeuppance often arrives late (if ever at all).

Something like this.
Something like this.

As the stories of men thinking the Priesthood made them somehow superior, better, or more in control than women trickled through in the comments, my heart dropped. I was horrified. For me, personally, the Priesthood is rarely ever a boon; it’s a Ring of Power, a heavy burden I carry around my neck, constantly beckoning with its seductive power which I can abuse at the risk of my soul.

It all started on my mission when, to get back at some elders who wielded their artificial titles like some kind of weapon of argument. The most infuriating thing I encountered on my mission was the “I love you” tactic. A missionary in a leadership position would chew you out (sometimes in front of others) in a most embarrassing, confrontational, humiliating way. After such abuse, they would smile, hold out their arms for a hug and say with false cheer in their voice, “But remember Elder, I love you.” This particular behavior stemmed from a most unfortunate misinterpretation of Doctrine and Covenants 121:43, which reads:

Unless you're paying me. No, wait, I still don't want to get yelled at by you. Especially in the name of God.

Unless you're paying me. No, wait, I still don't want to get yelled at by you. Especially in the name of God.

Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy.

Perhaps they thought such a paltry “I love you” would ease the burning sting of humiliation? In the end, it only made missionaries angrier that their leaders thought such a trick would work.  More importantly, this rarely worked to motivate or inspire missionaries because often the Holy Ghost was notably absent. Whenever you feel like reproving, the scripture reminds us if you can feel the Spirit of God. If you can’t, hold your tongue. Trust me, 99% of the time, you should be holding your tongue. the Spirit is rarely present in times of anger.

I knew that this was a horrific butchering of an exceptionally beautiful passage of scripture, and so I memorized all of Doctrine and Covenants 121:34-46. I wanted to, at will, recall a passage which I would start reciting whenever someone began to use that technique on me. I ended up memorized it thoroughly, and with each new recitation, insights would flood my head about what Priesthood authority was really about. I began to see that sometimes, it felt that the mission was a giant party of Priesthood abuse (I later told my brother this observation while on his mission and he replied in the affirmative). When someone began to tell me what to do by virtue of their “authority” I would simply just recite the passage I wanted. In reality, I memorized the scripture to get people off my back, but in the end, I accidentally internalized it.

My religious experience hasn’t been the same since.

Within this incredible passage of scripture is the most beautiful and accurate depiction of God’s power – it is the power to save, but only through love and persuasion, not compulsion. And embedded within the scripture is the most potent warning ever about authority and tapping into God’s power:

We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, so they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. Hence, many are called, but few are chosen.

Like reproving, the requirements for using the Priesthood are harsh and exacting, and in my life, the stars rarely ever align:

No power of influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge.

And let’s not forget the warning that Priesthood authority is in no way a guarantee for anything:

That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.

Of course, all of this only means anything to anyone if they’re a believer. So despite my really liberal (and sometimes sacrilegious) attitude towards my religion, it’s obvious to me  that I take this section of my faith very, very seriously. To me, abuse of power is bad enough; when you’re abusing God’s power, you’re playing with lightning, kid, and your’e going to get burned. I cringe. I don’t want to be there when they have to own up to what they’re doing. It’s going to be awkward and painful to watch.

Did I just compare the Priesthood to a concept in a Nickelodeon cartoon? At least it was one of their best ones.

Did I just compare the Priesthood to a concept in a Nickelodeon cartoon? At least it was one of their best ones.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t had good experiences using the Priesthood. There have been times when I’ve given blessings, and I can feel pure intelligence surging through my body. To inject geek into the subject, thinking back to those times I’m reminded of Zuko teaching Aang lightning redirection in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Zuko tells Aang that as the lightning surges through your body it’s exhilarating, you never feel more alive. But at the same time, it’s terrifying, because you know one wrong move can kill you. Sometimes, wielding the Priesthood feels like that.

I’ve been blessed by parents and youth leaders who taught me to take the Priesthood as seriously as possible. And the more I learn about the Priesthood, the more I start to take it even more seriously. This is not a paltry token of authority given to us, and honestly, the fact that I “hold” it as a male member of the Church scares me. For one, many are called, but few are chosen – which means statistically, I’m more likely to succumb to unrighteous dominion than not. This pushes me to work even harder in tempering this power that supposedly lies dormant within in me. I’d rather only unleash it when I absolutely have to, and when I do, I can only hope I am strong enough to control it.

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