Tag Archives: spirituality

Scriptures, the Tarot, and other universal archetypes

I’ve recently been reading a lot about (and collecting) Tarot decks in conjunction with a project that I’ve been working on. The Tarot deck has always fascinated me, even since my childhood, not because I believed that such cards held some kind of mystical clairvoyant power, but mostly because of the archetypes the Major Arcana represented. Concepts such as Judgment, The World, Temperance, The Sun, The Moon, The Emperor, The Fool — they all felt like symbolic poetry, a world of ideas and feelings and connotations packed into a single card with a single image.

In retrospect, my fascination with  Tarot cards most likely stemmed from my strict religious upbringing, especially one such as Mormonism which is still obsessed with the idea of symbolism. We continue to, like many other religions, employ symbolism within our worship, and also within the way we speak about and act out our faith. How could I, a kid raised to automatically ferret out symbolism and derive great joy and satisfaction from decompressing it, resist the rich symbolism of the Tarot?

"Okay, I tap The Emperor and sacrifice the Nine of Cups to deal five damage to your Hierophant."

"Okay, I tap The Emperor and sacrifice the Nine of Cups to deal five damage to your Hierophant."

While learning about the symbolism of the Tarot, it was inevitable that I learned a little in how to use them in the traditional sense of fortune telling. So when some friends came over, I offered to do some Tarot readings as a sort of parlor trick. They agreed and said it sounded like fun. I proceeded to lay out spreads for each of my friends. Some of them mirrored their life situations perfectly while others, predictably, did not. All in all, however, I was very surprised to see how invested people get into Tarot readings; they automatically seek out to relate their life to the cards, or extrapolate meanings in the symbolism to apply to their own life.

One friend, who recently got out of a bad relationship, took the Tarot spread’s interpretation to mean that he needed to stop dwelling on the past and look forward with an attitude of healing. My wife, whose spread told her that her life had recently seen massive changes (like a baby perhaps), interpreted it to mean that she needed to look at her situation at different angles rather than trying to fix problems by just trying harder. My spread told me that I needed to be more careful with how I spent my money, and that perhaps my life is not in accordance with the values of modesty and temperance.

We all sat back afterwards, somewhat surprised but satisfied by our readings. As I contemplated this later that night, it struck me at how optimistic and even — dare I say it? — helpful these readings were. I’ll admit that lately, I’ve been a lot more wary about where my money goes. My wife has been a lot more diligent and creative in her approaches to personal problems recently. And our friend who had just left a bad relationship felt almost a sense of relief and a much more positive outlook for the future. None of these things are really bad.

In fact, this is a lot like reading the scriptures.

Now, before every Mormon decides to crucify me for daring to compare the occult like the Tarot with the scriptures, let me explain.

Scriptures are mostly story. They are intensely human stories rich with symbolism and meaning. We often must sit back and work to decompress the sheer amount of knowledge, information, and advice within them. And most importantly, like a good Tarot reading, we extrapolate those symbols and appropriate them for our own, working hard to match them with what is happening in our personal lives. I could read the conversion story of Alma the Younger in the Book of Mormon and derive a completely different interpretation than my father would, and we would most definitely apply them differently in our lives. But when Mormon sat down to write the abridged account of Alma the  Younger, he could not have had all of these things in mind. Yes, the Book of Mormon is for our day thematically, but that’s exactly why it’s so successful as a piece of religious literature — the themes are broad, universal, and archetypal. They are applicable to every situation and station in life.

Like Tarot readings, the person giving the reading does not have to work hard. In a Sunday School class, one simply has to read the story out loud and people will immediately begin to draw connections to their own lives. And often, these lessons are beneficial. The Alma the Younger conversion story tells parents to be patient and trust God. It warns against the personal sorrows and pains of sin, but it also extols the virtues of forgiveness and love. It’s a treatise on the fallen nature of man and the dependency one must develop on God’s grace. It talks about the hurt errant children can inflict on parents. It talks about social consequences in not only ignoring family and religious traditions and customs, but also in actively rebelling and fighting against it. This is not even a comprehensive list of what this simple story can teach.

In fact, both scriptures and Tarot rarely communicate anything new in our lives. Instead, they work with the material that we do have, roiling beneath our conscious thought, and give it some kind of metaphysical form. It allows us to access feelings deep within us, some joyful, others uneasy, and bring them up to the surface to face and examine. Deep down, I knew that I should be more careful with my money, but “finding it in the cards” gave me a little bit more of a kick out the door to actually do it. My wife knew that trying the same old things to solve her perennial problems wouldn’t work; the Tarot interpretation that she created for herself helped her to finally face up to it and act out on it. And my friend, reeling from a personal loss and trying to patch up the wounds he sustained from it, found the reading helpful in fighting back the personal insecurity that can sometimes haze over a good, if not difficult, decision.

Now, I know that there is no actual, real power in the Tarot. I know that the deck has been around forever but it was only in the 19th century when people began creating mystical interpretations of what was once an absurdly complicated card game (like Bridge) to build a way to tell fortunes with it out of whole cloth. I know very keenly the somewhat dubious history of the Tarot, and especially how this Tarot undermines the idea that there can be no good that comes from it. However, the Tarot’s power, I believe, is not because it has some kind of inherent occult-devil power, or because there is power infused within the cards, but because they happen to depict universal themes that speak to everyone in some way. The cards do not tell the future; we tell the future for ourselves, using the symbols provided by the Tarot as prompts.

What is interesting to note about the power of scripture is that they, too, do not have to be “factually true” to have such power. I don’t want to re-open a whole “Is the Book of Mormon historical or not?” debate. In fact, my main point is that such a debate is counter-productive. The mythological figure Mormon (and he is more mythological than historical in our religion), despite his historian status and profession, did not compile the Book of Mormon to provide factual dates and statistics and observations for any kind of academic reason. Rather, he compiled his civilization’s mythos, from its mythical founding father Nephi, to various characters with superhuman abilities. How is Ammon the arm-slayer any different from the heroes of old? Mormon understood that encoded within the genetic material of these myths were powerful human emotions and archetypes that could motivate us to realize what we already know what we must do but were too afraid to face.

Joseph Campbell once wrote, “Whenever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to reinterpret a mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives is dissolved.” When we argue about whether or not the scriptures are historical, and when we get offended when people point out that there’s not a whole lot of scientific evidence for the Book of Mormon’s historicity, we shouldn’t bat an eye. Because historicity only matters if you’ve based your faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ on carbon dating and archaeological digs. We derive religious meaning, significance, and utility from accessing instead what Carl Jung called the collective imagination and consciousness of humanity. True efficacy of the scriptures comes not from whether or not it actually happened in the past, but whether or not these stories continue to play out in our everyday lives.

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Filed under fokltale, life stories, religion, wordsmithing

Mostly Correlation Friendly Prayer Alternatives

During one memorable Sunday School lesson, the instructor proudly spoke on how our Church discourages “rote and memorized” prayers. He emphasized that we encourage prayers to come from the heart instead, spontaneous and sincere. “Except in important instances, such as in the priesthood ordinances like baptism and the Sacrament, we don’t use memorized prayers.”

“But we do,” one student responded. “’Please bless this food so that it may strengthen and nourish our bodies,’ even when we’re eating ice cream for refreshments.”

“How about ‘Please bless us that we’ll all drive home safely’?” another student said.

“Or ‘Please bless those who are not with us today that they may be with us next week,’ when we don’t even know who they are, or have any intention of encouraging them to come,” said another.

It’s clear that even though the Church does not give out prescribed prayers for every instance of the day and night, we still fall into the trap of rote, memorized prayers that we recite out of habit, but not from the heart. Prayer, at least prayer available in the lowest common denominator of Church culture, just hasn’t been cutting it for me the past few years. I’ll admit, my prayer practice began to fall apart over time, until it was almost non-existent. This isn’t to say I had nothing to discuss with God, nor that I had grown cold and unappreciative of life. My life was actually getting better in every single way. But I didn’t know how to communicate with God sincerely when I found myself saying the same phrases over and over again. I didn’t know how else to communicate.

Of course, receiving the news that we were expecting changed my lazy dynamic. When the kiddo came around, what family traditions of prayer did I want to teach? I didn’t want my child to suffer under the same lackadaisical, stiff, boring prayer traditions I had found myself mired in. I needed to change the routine up while still keeping true to the spirit of what prayer is supposed to be. And so, I began to experiment.

Prayer of Thanksgiving – I picked up this practice during my time in the Missionary Training Center, and I sadly only practiced this sporadically. We often make a lot of demands in our prayers; in fact, I would think that often our demands outweigh our praise and gratitude in our prayers. We always need something to go well – to find a job, maybe for someone to get better, or for just general safety and wellness. We want to be happy, for our friends and family to be protected, for whatever we’re eating to magically become nutritious and nourishing. But often times, we don’t thank enough. I know for me, I make really general blanket statements of thanks – thanks for this food, thanks for this Sabbath, thanks for the opportunity to be with family, or if I’m in a real rush, thanks for all of our blessings, whatever that means.

The adage to count our blessings really does help lift moods and bring appreciation for everything we have. In a prayer of thanksgivings, lay off on the demands for a while. Only thank God in the prayer. And when you do thank him, thank him individually for everything. Thank him for every friend and family member by name. If there’s a particular favorite food you like, thank him for that. Thank him for the sun, the sky, green grass, a song you heard that especially touched you. Sometimes I find myself thanking him for things that I might never have otherwise brought up in prayer – (thus far) mostly proper DNA replication in the body, or maybe for that really great deal in potting soil to start our patio garden. I have no idea if God made Costco give a great deal on potting soil; I have a feeling he actually doesn’t really care about the market price of potting soil (then again, he could?), but I’m grateful for potting soil and I’m grateful for the ability to grow a garden on our patio, so why not? It can’t hurt.

You’ll be surprised how powerful a periodic prayer of thanksgiving can be. Sometimes we feel like God isn’t really looking out for us. And though times certainly get really tough sometimes, I think the vast majority of us still have an incredible lot to be thankful for (especially if you live in the States!).

Meditation – My first encounter with meditation was during a world religions class in high school. My friend Kim sat next to me, still, silent, serene. I, however, couldn’t tame my highly active monkey mind for more than a minute; my mind kept getting distracted by, yes, shiny things, among other distractions. Over the years, I’ve never developed as strong of a meditation practice as I should, but I’ve noticed the benefits whenever I do it.

I know of Mormons – and Christians, for that matter – who get wary around the idea of meditation. Recently, meditation has come to the American cultural spotlight as a mostly Eastern religious practice. However, Western religions also have a strong meditation practice, especially in the all-important monasteries. One of the activities we are told to do with the scriptures – along with praying, pondering, and reading – is meditating. Meditation is simply the practice of sitting down and clearing the mind. Many focus on a mantra, a phrase or word to repeat over and over in order to train the mind to clear out all distractions.

If any word could aptly describe our fast-paced, post-industrial, modern life, it’s “distracting.” We have a million distractions vying for our attention, and it takes a toll. Meditation is a way to step out of those distractions and focus on the divine. Combine meditation with scripture memorization. Pick out a verse that brings comfort, and use that as a mantra. Many people don’t know how to start. Others are embarrassed that when discovered, people will make fun of them. But meditation is easy. Just sit down, try to clear your mind of thoughts, and be still, and know that God is God. If you’re afraid people will make fun of you, literally take the advice Jesus gives – meditate in a closet. Sometimes I’ll lock myself in the bathroom. And it doesn’t have to be a marathon meditation session. Try meditating for just a minute. Then two minutes. Then five. You’ll be surprised how quickly the time passes, and how often times, how reluctant you’ll feel to leave that peaceful meditative bubble. Sometimes, words are clumsy and fail in communicating to the divine. Wrapping yourself up in the present moment with meditation can help us interact and experience the divine when words don’t seem to come.

One extra benefit from meditation is a new-found ability to forgive myself. It’s nearly impossible to try to clear your head of thoughts, just as it’s impossible to muck through this life unspotted from the world. In meditation, when a thought enters my mind, I acknowledge its presence, then dismiss it and focus on the mantra. It’s unproductive to self-castigate or flagellate yourself for your failure. This practice of self-forgiveness has spilled into other parts of my life, where if I make a mistake, I acknowledge it, then continue on, refusing to dwell on it. Focus on the larger goal and move on. It’s a nice feeling.

Hymns and psalms – a hymn is a prayer to the Lord, as the saying goes. If you don’t feel like praying (and who doesn’t feel like this from time to time), just sing a hymn. If singing isn’t your thing, try reciting a psalm instead. The book of Psalms is a collection of Hebrew poetry, originally used for singing. When on the Cross, Jesus quoted Psalms. Many Christians memorize their favorite psalm to recite when feeling distressed.

Sometimes, we don’t know what to say. My wife often feels that she doesn’t have any pressing demands, nor is she really bursting and overflowing with gratitude every minute of the day, and so she often prays to simply “check in,” like a college student calling her parents once in a while to make sure they know she’s not dead. But she doesn’t like doing that with God. We’ve decided if we ever feel like we’re shortchanging him, or feel like we’re just simply “checking in” with words, but not with our hearts, we’ll either sing a hymn, or if we’re too tired, recite a psalm. And maybe it’s just years of conditioning from the Church, what, with hymns usually preceding prayer, but sometimes singing hymns just helps you get into that prayer mood.

Change up the time – During the mission, I struggled making the transition from night owl to early riser. The mission schedule is brutal to night owls, with its daily 6:30 in the morning wake up call. Often times, I struggled just to flip over onto my stomach, push myself up, and pray with my face pressed into my pillow. Often times, I’d fall asleep mid-prayer and just lie there, in some kind of twisted, bizarre Child’s Pose, for fifteen minutes or more, sleeping under the guise of prayer.

One of my friends on the mission hated this; I wasn’t the only one who did it. He eventually told me that what I should do is get up, take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, and then get down on my knees for my morning prayer. God appreciates a clear head and a sincere prayer, not half-mumbled phrases I can’t distinguish from my dreams the night before. I tried it, and it helped a lot. Not only did my prayers make more sense (I remember sometimes praying for help from the bears that are trying to eat me), but I found my prayers to be a little bit more…different. More real. More about what I was about to do, and less about vague generalities (or man-eating bears).

Sometimes all you need is a break from the routine. The general times of praying are in the morning, at night, and before meals. However, praying outside of those times can help break the monotony. Instead of praying right before bed, try meditating a little in the evening. Instead of praying right when you get out of the morning, try praying in the car right before taking off for work. Often times, limiting ourselves to certain times when we must pray makes prayer start to feel like a chore, our predetermined times as some sort of quota. If we want to make prayer spontaneous and sincere, more of a lifestyle rather than a commandment, we must also break free of the idea that prayer should be done at specific times in the day, an idea that quickly becomes a prison. If you don’t pray immediately in the mornings, but pray during lunch for help in the unexpected things you must finish that day, I wonder if God cares much about the time discrepancy.

Hugh Nibley once wrote that “We think it more commendable to get up at five a.m. to write a bad book than to get up at nine o’clock to write a good one.” We could also amend that to say “We think it more commendable to get up at five a.m. to say a bad prayer than to get up at nine o’clock to say a good one.” This is a dangerous attitude to have about prayer, one that holds us back from any real spiritual progression.

Prayer, and communion with the divine in general, helps us develop a deeper appreciation not just for what is in store, but also for our lives now. One of the greatest blessings of Mormonism is its celebration not only of the future afterlife, but also the nitty gritty, dirty, dusty, mortal life we live today. True, sincere communication can help us secure a place in the next life, but it can also bring love and joy in the now, despite its difficulties and heartache.

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Boys will be boys

When I was an impressionable young teenager, President Hinckley issued forth a call for women everywhere to wear only one pair of earrings. I have no idea what the motivation or logic behind it was; it was probably something to do with modesty or something. Many women heeded the call. Others did not. And for some of those who did not (for whatever reason), there were consequences in store. Pretty serious ones, actually.

A little later, a speaker in General Conference told a story of a young man who had a girlfriend. When President Hinckley mentioned this rule, he waited for his girlfriend to remove her multiple earrings. She didn’t, and after a few weeks, this concerned him. Eventually, he broke up with her over this, because he wanted a girlfriend who would follow the prophet.

As an impressionable, young teenager, I thought to myself, “Way to go, nameless dude! Way to keep up your standards!” But as I grew older, I thought about the situation more and more until now, I wonder to myself, “Seriously, nameless dude? You broke up with a girlfriend whom you supposedly loved a lot and even considered marrying because she wore multiple pairs of earrings?” I know for a fact that I have a lot of flaws way more serious than multiple pairs of earrings, and I’m glad my wife chose to overlook them. If we all lived by such a harsh standard, no one in the world would get married ever. And, even more importantly, women around all of the global Church suddenly became stigmatized as openly in rebellion with God. What began as a simple fashion decision became conflated into an issue of obedience and compliance with the laws of Heaven at the utmost level. After all, this was a marriage deal breaker. That’s heavy stuff.

But this post is not about the deleterious effects of tolerating the sin of multiple earrings. My wife put a new spin on this when she mentioned this rule and said, “How come everyone remembers that commandment, but nobody remembers that in that very same talk, President Hinckley told all the guys to stop wearing baggy pants?”

This got me thinking. Why didn’t they codify baggy pants?

Here is the entry for dress and grooming standards from the Church pamphlet For Strength of Youth:

Immodest clothing includes short shorts and skirts, tight clothing, shirts that do not cover the stomach, and other revealing attire. Young women should wear clothing that covers the shoulder and avoid clothing that is low-cut in the front or the back or revealing in any other manner. Young men should also maintain modesty in their appearance. All should avoid extremes in clothing, appearance, and hairstyle. Always be neat and clean and avoid being sloppy or inappropriately casual in dress, grooming, and manners. Ask yourself, “Would I feel comfortable with my appearance if I were in the Lord’s presence?”

Notice the one line specifically addressed to boys: “Young men should also maintain modesty in their appearance.” That’s it. The first half of the paragraph includes very detailed instructions on how to wear their clothes for women, including what can and cannot show. The rest of the advice applies to “all,” which means it’s not boy-specific. Yes, I suppose that baggy pants will count under “neat and clean” and avoiding “being sloppy or inappropriately casual,” but take into account that in the next paragraph, the one pair of earrings only rule is specifically referred to:

Do not disfigure yourself with tattoos or body piercings. If girls or women desire to have their ears pierced, they are encouraged to wear only one pair of modest earrings.

The really interesting thing is that if you asked people before the talk if baggy pants on young men bothered them, many of the older people (and even some of the youth, especially the young women) would say that baggy pants really, really bothered them. But if you asked them what they thought about multiple pairs of earrings, I would suspect that most of them would answer with either a “What about them?” response or an “If they are tasteful, I don’t mind” response.

So what gives? Why are the rules for girls intentionally specific, but the rules or boys incredibly brief and open to all kinds of interpretation? It wouldn’t have been difficult to come up with some kind of rule (“if your boxers are showing, for the love of Brigham’s hoary beard, buy a belt and learn to use it”), but the one pair of earrings rule is codified and the baggy pants rule slips under the radar.

So how did this happen? We obviously care if young men walk around in baggy pants. So why didn’t we put that in the For Strength of Youth pamphlet? And why did we latch onto the single pair of earrings rule so tightly, to the point where we modified the pamphlet to include this rule? Did the fact that it referred to women add more impetus to get it codified? With all of the problems we deal with on a day to day basis, both spiritual and temporal, was the earring rule really worth it? And now that this rule has become so entrenched within Mormon culture, will this ever go away?

Even if we ignore the sexist implications within this situation, it also brings up an incredibly important point: How can we tell which of the prophet’s counsel is important without the Church telling us so? The stock answer would be: All of it’s important, and there’ probably truth to that. Obviously, we shouldn’t disregard the sin of baggy pants, but what kind of message does it send when the Church legislates on the number of earrings you can wear but not on the number of inches you can show with your baggy pants?

Bonus question: It’s difficult for people to argue this rule as valuable on a purely spiritual level, either by avoiding sin or by increasing spirituality (at least I have not heard any real, convincing arguments; but if you have one, do post it in the comments!). It seems that this rule, while hardly based on a spiritual level, seems more on the level of a codified cultural rule (much like the no beards policy among church leaders and BYU students). When the Church begins to move into places such as Africa, where piercings are considered socially important, even sacred, how strongly is this rule enforced? Does anyone have experience with the Saints in Africa? Is this rule considered a big deal down there? Do they keep it, or do they simply shrug and ignore it, or do they even hear about that rule at all?

Also, no talk about how piercings are evil omg unless you can show evidence, please, like whether or not there are measurable levels of Holy Ghost Interference Units when metal is placed within the body (which spells problems for those with metal pins and braces in their bodies for medical reasons).

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An Apology and a Clarification

My friend Kimberly called after I wrote the most recent post about why I think singles wards are really, really, really bad ideas, and she said, “The only criticism I can give you is this: You can be sarcastic, and you can be angry, and you can write about important issues, but you can’t do all three at once.” Wise words.

I realize that my sarcasm hurt people badly. I apologize. I, myself, after talking to a friend into the late-night about his struggles with the church, also smarted in the morning. Couple that with only two hours of sleep and the vindictive rage of a young, immature up-start, and, well, you get the picture. My words came across poorly to a lot of people, and I wish to apologize. To those I hurt who equated my criticisms of the singles ward structure with those within the structure itself, I sincerely, deeply apologize. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A very huge misunderstanding arose especially when I called singles wards “spiritually deficient.” I want to clarify my words about exactly what I meant (and at this point, most of you will probably stop reading).

My basic thesis for why singles wards are spiritually sub-optimal is thusly: Singles wards provide no specific, extra benefit to young single adults. Not only can family wards provide everything a singles ward can, but it can provide more.

1. Relationships

When I suggested folding singles wards into family wards, many people became concerned that the ability to create relationships with other singles would suffer. I do not believe this to be true for several reasons. Firstly, unless the demographic of singles is incredibly scarce, there will be multiple singles within a ward’s boundaries. You will see other singles within the ward. Secondly, relationships do not form simply within church – we have many venues for singles to meet, such as singles activities (across ward, stake, and multi-stake areas), Institute, and the Internet (social media is quickly changing how we hang out and form friendships). There will be plenty of opportunities to meet other single Mormons in the area and form lasting relationships.

What if you really are the only single Mormon in the entire stake? Maybe even the area? If this is the case, even a singles ward probably could not help you, and you will most likely have just attended the family ward anyway. In fact, there are many areas within the world where this is true – the church does not have enough single people in the area to create a functional ecclesiastical branch, and these people can and do experience rich, fulfilling religious lives within the context of the family ward. However, I would venture that most singles in North America (at least) will not fall into this extreme, and thus, will be able to meet, congregate, and serve each other within the context of a family ward and outside church activities.

2. Singles wards have limited opportunities to serve (quantitatively)

I remember that in the singles wards I attended, we joked that callings were often made up just so that the singles had something to do. I attended large singles wards and that was certainly the case. Family wards, however, suffer from this problem less. My wife and I attended a ward of 700 people, and though a ward that size came with other problems, keeping people occupied with callings was easy without having to resort to “making up” callings like the girl who passes out the Ensign to all the apartments every month (a real calling my wife had – that she shared with someone).

Consider the auxiliary functions present in the family ward:

– The bishopric
– High priests group
– Elders quorum
– Relief Society
– Young Mens (which includes the deacon, teacher, and priest quorums)
– Young Womens (which includes the Beehives, Mia Maids, and Laurels – do they still call it those names?)
– Primary
– Sunday School

And this is not considering some of the extra callings present in a healthy family ward, such as ward librarian and so forth. Each of these auxiliary branches of the church require members to fulfill the various roles. Each section needs a presidency, advisors, teachers, and in the case of the adult auxiliaries, coordinators to help with home and visiting teaching. Running a ward on volunteer service is a lot of work! Obviously, branches function differently, and some wards (because of the area they live in) have weaker organizations and stronger organizations, but for the most part, all family wards have each of these auxiliary organizations running in some form, and those organizations need people to work within them.

Contrast this with the organizations involved in  a singles ward:

– Bishopric
– Elders Quorum
– Relief Society
– Sunday School

As you can see, the opportunities to serve are limited. Yes, several larger singles wards contain multiple elders quorums and relief societies, but notably missing are callings that young single adults can reasonably participate in, such as:

– Young mens presidency (president, two counselors, secretary), priests quorum advisor, teachers quorum advisor, deacons quorum advisor, priests quorum teacher, teachers quorum teacher, deacons quorum teacher, and if you live in North America, at least one Scoutmaster.

– Young womens presidency (president, two counselors, secretary), Laurels advisor, Mia Maids advisor, Beehives advisor, Laurels teacher, Mia Maids teacher, Beehives teacher, in some cases, callings to help run Mutual (or whatever they’re calling it these days)

– Primary presidency (president, two counselors, secretary), Primary teachers across all age groups, in some cases, callings to help organize Primary activities outside the church

Thus, in a ward of 700 people, many people were committed to serving the youth and children of the ward. These, as you can imagine, are enriching, rewarding callings that challenge and provide opportunities for growth. In a singles ward, you are missing out. Reiterations of elders quorums and relief societies do not provide as many opportunities to serve, and they do not provide the wide spectrum of service available in the other auxiliary organizations.

In other words, if you attend a singles ward, chances are, your calling will not be very fulfilling. I was lucky to have mostly meaningful callings; many of my friends and my wife were not so fortunate.

3. Singles wards have limited opportunities to serve (qualitatively)

Inherent in the lack of opportunities to serve because of various missing demographics (i.e., everyone else) is the lack of opportunity to enjoy the wisdom and learning experiences of those in different age groups. The various wards I grew up in were great in this regard – I had many older people take me under their wing; they helped raised me, taught me many lessons that I will not forget, and continued to have an interest in me. While I had good relations with the bishop, at any time if I wanted an adult, older perspective, I could go to any of my older mentors and ask for advice. This does not ring true in a singles ward.

Aside from just older perspectives, younger perspectives and the opportunity to be good role models to the rising generation are also notably missing. Callings in helping the youth to grow can help you remember what it was like to be a youth and enrich your perspective. Most of the people I know who served in young men and young women leadership capacities enjoyed their callings, and even those who hated them mostly agreed they gained growth and experience.

However, a member of a singles ward misses these opportunities in crucial moments of their lives. I remember that as a teenager, the 20-somethings were cool – when they talked, I listened. I wanted to be like them, and they understood that. They gave me advice and perspective when older people were not necessarily “cool” in my book and it helped me out a lot. Later, as a 20-something reintegrating into a family ward, I realize that I did not have any of these “role model” opportunities. I feel awkward around them, and it’s taken me time to remember how to act around those younger than me. Not only do we deprive young single adults of wonderful growth opportunities as role models, our youth also suffer from the lack of associating with them.

This all has the life-changing potential to combine into an incredible environment of love and support. My brother growing up alienated himself from the Church. He decided he did not believe in the doctrines or teachings and vowed he would have nothing to do with it. My parents were pained, and they did not know what to do. Luckily for them, my brother had very close, deep relationships with some of the older men in the ward. These men persisted in keeping him within the ward family loop, even when he did not necessarily want to himself. They had discussions with him late into the night, sometimes giving up three or four hours of their time to answer questions. On the other side of the spectrum, my brother had made friends with some of the younger teenagers in the ward. He saw how they looked up to him for advice, that they attempted to emulate him. Despite his straying from the Church, he knew that if he did anything morally reprehensible, it would devastate them. He saw how they looked forward to the future with hope, and wondered why. All of this combined to molding him for the better, and because of these fruitful relationships and experiences across a wide spectrum of circumstances, he learned for himself what he felt to be true and re-entered the Church culture and left on a mission for South Korea.

I am convinced that had he decided to leave the Church in his 20-somethings instead, a similar environment of love and support could not be provided. Certainly, his single peers would try desperately to re-activate him, but they all have limited perspectives. They do not have the perspectives of the brethren in my family’s ward who, with patience and love, helped my brother navigate the stormy moments in his life.  It is not a lack of desire or righteousness that prevents them from helping someone like my brother; it is lack of experience, something you cannot rush. Some suggested to me that the singles ward is inspiration from God, and thus we should accept it. Well, I think our geographical ward structure is divinely inspired – it has the amazing capability to tap into the lives, experiences, and wisdom of many different people. Why do we need to modify it for young single adults, especially when our modifications cut them off from the very blessings geographical wards provide?

It is no secret among the leaders of the Church that we struggle in retaining our young single adults. I humbly suggest that the singles ward, and the way it is structured, erects unnecessary barriers for young single adults to tap into the incredible goodness Mormon culture has to offer when they need it the most.

4. Singles wards create unnecessary and painful division simply by their existence

What happens when we create singles wards and student married wards? We emphasize that they are somehow different from the rest of us. If they weren’t, then why would we put them in separate wards?

The truth of the matter is, they are different, but so is everyone else in the family ward. A 12 year old deacon’s needs are vastly different from a 35 year old mother with four children, whose needs are vastly different from a 65 year old man who recently lost his wife. Yet all of them can find fulfillment in serving each other in a family ward. Why are single and married student couple needs any different?

The life cycle of a Mormon, then, is thus:

– A Mormon is born into the Church, goes to Primary, and then the young adult programs, and along the way picks up valuable friendships and mentors

– A Mormon turns 18. He or she may leave home for school. Regardless, they are shuffled into a singles ward. Their religious experience is solely centered on those like him or her. There are no older mentors, no younger youth to goof around with. The perspectives of everyone around them are similar and limited. Sure, some people may have different individual circumstances, like the loss of a loved one, or maybe parents who’ve divorced, but a 20-something year old’s perspective, 30-something year old’s perspective, a 40-something year old’s perspective, and a 60-something year old’s perspective is vastly different (unless you want to challenge that statement, and if you do, good luck). These are all notably missing.

– A Mormon now has two choices. They can get married, in which they then either re-integrate into a family ward or go to a student married ward until they have children or graduate, which then they re-integrate into a family ward, or they can not get married for whatever reasons, and then re-enter a family ward at age 30, where many will unconsciously look at them as a failure because they didn’t get married despite being surrounded by single Mormons for 12 years (this unconscious judgment is built into the very structure and purpose of a singles ward).

– For the Mormon who gets married, they lost about roughly anywhere from two to eleven years in the family ward. That’s two to eleven years of hanging out with and serving teenagers and children and getting wisdom and love and direction from older people. The only way to avoid this is to get married right away at 18, which most North American Mormons I know (not to mention almost all the experts) discourage.

– For the Mormon who doesn’t get married, that’s 12 years lost in the singles ward. When they return to the family ward they return as a failure. They return as someone to be pitied. No one knows exactly how to treat them because they haven’t spent any time around people of similar life circumstances. This can be an incredibly demoralizing and lonely experience.

Consider instead this alternative. As a young single adult moves away to find his or her own way, he or she is integrated into just another family ward. The stability of the family ward will most likely encourage the young single adult’s life to be stable as well. He or she makes friends and relationships. He or she picks up a significant other. In the end, they’re married, and all of those around them rejoice. They welcome in the new couple, already familiar at least with one of the previously single people, and treating them like people, they help them adjust to the new married life.

Or consider this alternative. A young single adult moves away to find his or her own way. Perhaps it is in the stars that that particular young single adult will not get married in this lifetime. Let’s say that person reaches age 30. Instead of experiencing the walk of shame back into a family ward, head hung low, wondering how he or she went wrong, the ward just continues to treat the person as the person they knew. Sure, there will be older members who may cluck their tongues, or perhaps try to hook them up with relatives or people they know, but for the most part, that 30 year old will have relationships with people who will support the young single adult in his or her endeavors. There is no traumatic shift from the life he or she knew for 12 years into a life that does not know what to do with that person.

My concern is especially for those who do not get married in this lifetime. While it may be easier to go to a singles ward instead of a family ward, know that your time is running out – at age 30, you will be integrated into a family ward, end of story. This is of great consternation for me. The very purpose of a singles ward is to promote young people getting married within the faith. This puts an unhealthy emphasis on marriage (I feel) and unhealthy pressure on young single adults. And if that young single adult does not marry, they are branded a failure of the system because they failed to reach the singles ward’s objective – to get this person married off to another Mormon by 30. I would rather young single adults labor in a family ward and gain all of the benefits while erasing some of the stigma by not treating young single adults differently than any supposed benefit of helping people get married through the singles ward system. It’s a gamble, and a heavy price to pay if you buck the trend, which is unfortunate and supremely unnecessary.

I could go on (oh, how I could go on) but I feel this is more than enough of an illustration of how singles wards do not serve the needs of young single adults. You can still have good experiences, but there is always the potential of having better experiences. I understand, as my friend Adam politely pointed out, that in some places, integrating singles wards with family wards would be impossible. Notable example: BYU. If that’s the case, though, just chalk up the singles ward as another strange BYU phenomena that people can choose or choose not to participate in (like ice block sledding or tunnel singing or devotionals). There is no need to force every young single adult in the world to labor in the Lord’s Kingdom under sub-optimal conditions. Take any benefit from the singles ward you’ve been in and say out loud, “X benefit does not exist in a family ward.” If you find one of these sentences is true, let me know. I would truly like to know.

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Why singles wards are really, really, really bad ideas and they should be dissolved, effective immediately

Note: Whew, this drew a lot more consternation than I was expecting (considering the last one I wrote about how prophets don’t necessarily fulfill the standard role as oracles in our Church drew barely a peep!). This is hastily written, overly dramatic, and can come off as totally mean. I wrote it with two hours of sleep and while trying to study for a cognitive psychology quiz. I didn’t mean to say you cannot have good experiences in the singles ward system, but I do stand by my argument that singles wards are redundant and unnecessary. So if you haven’t read this and you’re faint of heart, you might consider skipping this one out.

I have no love for singles wards. My experience in the singles ward circuit was humiliating, demoralizing, and nearly cost me my faith. I know of some people who thrive in the singles ward atmosphere. Let me say this loud and clear:

The vast majority of people I know don’t really like singles wards, and there’s a lot of reasons why, and I’m going to detail them right now, this very instant, so that you will know why singles wards are just really bad ideas that need to be dismantled.

1. Singles wards are artificial

Why do most Mormon geographical wards work so well? Because they’re geographical, and not left up to choice. I’ve seen the effects of church shopping on a community. The entire area devolves into a giant popularity contest as church leaders try to woo members away from other churches and cannibalize each other. It’s not pretty. Mormon wards, however, are divided up geographically, so that you’re forced to rub shoulders with people you normally wouldn’t hang out with. Most wards tend to have a pretty even spread of lifestyles and demographics. You have older people, young people, youth, teens, young couples, well-established couples, all learning from each other and working with each other for a greater cause. We exercise charity, we have opportunity to practice it every day, and it prevents the kind of clique-ish behavior humans so easily display. If you think cliques in a ward are bad, I had friends in high school who lost friends because they didn’t go to the “cool” church. It can get bad, and geographical wards eliminate a lot of those problems. That’s why we strongly encourage people to go to their geographical wards.

Except singles wards are not geographical. They are artificial in their construct. You have a very Stepford-esque situation where everyone is roughly the same age as you. Most are going to school or working for themselves. None (usually) have any children. There are no older people to give you advice, sans the frazzled bishopric who works overtime to work with a transient ward of people who don’t know what to do with their life. There are also no younger people to serve and give you a new perspective. In fact, there isn’t a whole lot of learning going on. A group of 20-somethings can only contribute so much before they just…run out of perspective. This creates an incredibly spiritually deficient atmosphere.

2. Singles wards have agendas

Singles wards are about getting married. Full stop. You can get out of the never ending circus only by getting married or turning 30. They are completely designed to help you find your spouse and that’s that.

This is wrong. Worship is not about finding the man or woman of your dreams. When we partake the Sacrament, you should not be scoping out the crowd. Every time someone speaks, you shouldn’t be judging whether they could be a potential mate/rival. Worship should be about God, not hormones. Unfortunately, in a singles ward, it is inescapable. People may deny it, but when the entire system is rigged to force you think about your unmarried state and changing it, how could you escape? It’s like when people tell you to not think of purple elephants – you can’t help but think about them now. When the entire system is designed to remind you that you need to get married, it’s impossible not to think about, when you should be thinking about God and service.

3. Because of the agenda, singles wards are ripe with all kinds of weird, creepy forms of compromised authority and stewardship

While I was single, my then girlfriend (soon wife)’s brother was also my roommate and and the elders quroum president. He struggled to rectify a really annoying trend in his hometeaching statistics.

Home teachers almost never visited their male charges. However, they did visit their female charges without fail every month. Sometimes several times a month.

Wait, let me add one more twist to the numbers.

Only the pretty ones had home teacher visits.

I do not think this kind of behavior was endemic to just our singles ward. I would imagine that this is the case for many singles wards. And it opens itself up to some really weird priesthood issues. One should not be using callings to score dates or chase skirts. Ever. This is just a really bad thing. But, again, with the agenda enforced so thoroughly within the very structure of the singles wards, how could you not run into this kind of situation?

I know of men who try to capture wives by manipulating spiritual events and feelings to their favor. These stories are not uncommon, and they are dispicable. We should not endorse or encourage any structure which only facilitates this kind of spiritual abuse.

4. The “younger” singles wards are too transient; the “older” singles wards are too stale

Because of the nature of young people, the singles ward demographic is constantly changing. Nowhere is this more apparent than BYU, where entire swaths of the ward leave every six months, only to be replaced by the “new crop.” This transient nature prevents the ward from providing a very important function that congregations should provide – they cannot act as an anchor for your family or your worship practice.

In my current ward, one of the counselors of the bishopric go out of his way to greet us every Sunday, to ask us how we’re doing. He encourages us every Sunday to think about staying in Redmond (with a twinkle in his eye, of course). He’s been in the ward for over 30 years. He’s seen the comings and goings, and for some reason, it provides a type of stability. We can learn everyone in ward and then become established ourselves, helping new people in. The entire ward isn’t changing overnight every six months. It’s nice, stable, and helps provide an anchor to an otherwise frenzied pace of life at that age.

Unfortunately, the “young” singles wards (usually localized around colleges) cannot provide that kind of anchor. They shift constantly. There’s no anchoring, no familiarity, no “old guard” to help you learn the ropes of the ward’s particular culture. Nor do you even care, because let’s face it – if you’re still there in a year, you’re surprised yourself. Nobody really tries to get to know each other because what’s the point? You just have to start the process over.

Sadly, the absolute opposite happens to the “older” singles wards (usually localized in cities and rural areas). They’ve been there for a while. Everyone has probably already dated everyone else – multiple times. And no marriage candidates. They go to church, but there’s no spiritual nourishment because there’s limited chances to serve in a meaningful way or to learn from the lifestyles of others around you. No matronly grandmothers to give you advice, no teenagers to joke with. Everyone is single, working (or in higher education), and completely burnt out in dating (after all, that’s the entire purpose of the singles ward). They’re just waiting to turn 30 so they can move on. The prospects of new people moving in are slim, definitely nowhere close to the singles wards they experienced in college. Everyone goes to church one Sabbath at a time, slowly marching through time until they can finally, bitterly leave the ward. And this is if they had the inexhaustible stores of spiritual stamina to endure such horror every week. Most have just stopped going to church by now. They’ve been shut out from the community they once loved simply because they’re unmarried. I’ve been in one of those singles wards. It’s like going to church with Dementors every Sunday.

We often say that for young single adults, this is the most critical point of their lives. So why, when they enter this most critical point of their lives, do we isolate them from the rest of the religious community, away from the good advice, the good role models, the good perspectives, the age and the wisdom that comes with it, and instead shut them up inside an echo chamber of angst and limited perspective? If this is the most critical point of their lives, we should surround them with all the love and support a geographical ward can muster (answer: a heck of a lot). Instead, we deprive them of one of the most beautiful expressions of Mormon culture when they need it most.

And explain to me why this whole set-up isn’t completely messed up.

5. We have a vast body of young single adults who want to serve but we refuse to let them

This is where the real damage of the singles wards come in. We have a vast army of young adults who want to serve the Church, who are begging to serve the Church, but we don’t let them. Think about it. These people have jobs, maybe some schooling, and have very little attachments. They have no spouse or kids. Unleash them into the wards!

A friend of mine lived in an area with no singles wards. He went to the family ward out of necessity instead. The elders quorum president called him to be a counselor. He worked intimately with many of the families of the ward. He grew in the leadership position. He was surrounded by good, honorable, older men who tutored and mentored him and became role models for his future. In turn, the ward got a counselor with little worldly attachment or obligation, who spent most of his evenings after work zealously in the service of God, visiting less actives and the sick and afflicted, spreading the gospel to those who might have otherwise fallen through the cracks.

I have friends who are tired of the singles ward. They want to move onto the family wards but they can’t because they’re nowhere close to 30 yet. They’re graduated from college, they work, and they don’t have much obligations outside of that. Imagine if we could channel all of that energy into young adults serving in the primary, Relief Society, the respective quorums and young women groups. What if we could turn all of that desire of service into effective home teachers who served families of all types and sizes, giving and receiving service in return? Imagine if we could have these people surrounded by wonderful, strong role models, people who have weathered the storms in life and still firmly believe in their faith, and who can in turn provide wonderful experiences for our single adults? But we don’t. We deny them of the very opporunities they are begging to have in order to progress in their faith and find spiritual nourishment. And you know what happens? Most of them don’t have patience for this malicious tomfoolery and shinanigans (that’s right, I called both of them). They drop out. And the funny thing is, aside from their lack of church attendance, they are Mormon through and through. They talk like Mormons. They live like Mormons. They think like Mormons. They believe like Mormons. And they’re proud of their Mormon heritage. They just don’t understand why the community the love so much would shut them out and act like they don’t exist or are worth nothing. How painful this is for them! It wounds them to the core. This is incredibly depressing for me to watch.

They want so desperately to serve and live the gospel. Instead, what do we do? Insist in corraling them into their respective singles wards where they eventually become bitter or simply stop coming. What a loss.

6. Singles wards don’t really help you to get married

Now, I can hear all of you saying, Brother Ted! There is a third option! You can just get married. But let me tell you something, you young whippersnappers. Singles wards won’t really help you get married.

Wait a second, I hear you chiming. I met my spouse at a singles ward! Darn it all to heck, you met your wife at a singles ward! And I will say, no, I really didn’t, and probably neither did you.

I met my wife because my roommate happened to have a really hot sister that would come over to visit and I would cover her with blankets when she fell asleep on the couch and walk her home every night for curfew.

Sure, we went to the same ward. We even talked on occasion in said ward. But both of us took our worship seriously. We didn’t really think that Sunday School class or fast and testimony meeting was a super appropriate opportunity to hit on someone. And neither should you.

Let’s say we dissolve all of the singles wards and incorporate all of them into the family wards. You will have singles meeting other singles in the context of the family wards! Except this time, they’re not super pressured to omg date right now and get married and pop out the babies because they are meeting in the context of community worship and not the meat packing plants that are today’s singles wards.

Let’s say your singles ward dissolves and you end up in a family ward that doesn’t have another single person of the opposite gender. That’s okay; you’re not  going to church to hook up anyway, and besides, it’s not like we don’t already have multi-stake singles events anyway. Because we totally do, you guys. Asking a girl out during Gospel Doctrine? Not cool, man. Asking a girl out during a singles dance because man, you two have just really been grooving well all night long? Niiiiiiiiiiiice.

That’s the thing. I can guarantee you that you will find other Mormon singles, and you will hang out (I am, of course, dealing with places where there are enough members. If you live in Eastern Europe, that’s a whole ‘nother story and singles wards themselves don’t even exist so problem solved I guess?). And it will be in these interactions outside of church that you will fall in love with and find your potential spouse and partner-for-life. I did not fall in love with my wife because she batted her eyelashes at me while Brother so-and-so droned on about faith at the pulpit. I fell in love with her when I showed her Katamari Damacy and she squealed in delight. I fell in love with her because we would take walks and she would hold my hand and snuggle up close. I fell in love because she would come over in cute hats and bake cookies and then tell me seriously how accounting is super-awesome. The fact that she was a strong member only solidified my love for her, and I didn’t have to meet her in the singles ward to find her. In fact, I really didn’t.

Looking for a spouse is like looking for a job – most likely, you will not get a job cold-calling all of the establishments you want to work with. Most likely, you will run into potential employers by word-of-mouth. Your friend will tell you about a sweet job you should look into, and you do. And most likely, you will find your job that way, not by purusing the classifieds. It’s the exact same thing when looking for a spouse. In fact, if you go into super-spouse-hunting mode, you really just end up scaring them all away.

We are taught to believe that the singles wards will help us find spouses, but it’s not true. People have been finding spouses long before singles wards existed. It’s true, they did! Ask, you know, every person who got married in the church before the relatively recent invention of singles wards! Unless you’re saying how they met didn’t count. Don’t tell them that. They’ll get mad. Have a little faith for the future, instead.

Singles wards won’t help you find a spouse. Single young adult activities? Sure, go to those absolutely. But when you go to church every Sunday, you should not feel like you’re being judged for spousal qualities or judge others for the same. You come to church for God. You come to church for Jesus. And if you’re coming to church for anything else, you’re doing it wrong.

So let us recap:

1. Singles wards are spiritually deficient by design.

2. Singles wards put marriage, dating, and hormones before God for Sunday worship.

3. Singles wards provide channels of really creepy spiritual manipulation, which should not be tolerated ever.

4. Singles wards deny opportunities for service and strong role models in the church and deprive people at the time they need it most the best Mormonism has to offer.

5. There are many singles dissatisfied with singles wards begging to be let into family wards, ready to serve with gusto and zeal, and we refuse to let them in because apparently not having a spouse is the equivalent of leprosy.

6. Singles wards don’t even really accomplish their designed purpose; singles activities do, and we already have both, so we might as well get rid of the former system that is sloughing unmarried young single adults over the age of 23 out of the church like a leper does limbs, right?

Any questions?

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Zazen and God

My wife has a hard time connecting with God. It’s not really her fault, and I don’t blame the Church either; she has a very different mindset which the general American LDS church culture cannot nurture. It’s simply an incompatibility between two completely different ways of approaching the world. So recently, I’ve been reading about other religious traditions to try and find a way to make it easier for her to find some kind of spiritual connection with God, and that’s when I hit upon zazen.

Buddhism’s core principles are simple – suffering exists because of desire. Desire creates action. When you eliminate desire (and thus, the need to act), then you eliminate suffering. Zen Buddhism believes the best way to achieve this type of enlightenment (“satori” in Zen Buddhism) is by sitting. You sit, and you slowly empty your mind so that it becomes like a still pond, reflecting reality. When you seek after your desires caused by attachment to the physical world, it is like flailing about in the pond, churning up the mud and dirt. Through sitting and stilling your mind, all of the mud and dirt settles to the bottom. You experience emotions, you observe your attachments to the world, and then you slowly cut those attachments away. It reminds me of the famous scripture in Doctrine and Covenants, “Be still, and know that I am God.” As you slowly peel away the facade of the physical world, you find what is behind, the Origin of All Things, and that is satori.

For my wife, she cannot take the idea of God and belief in Him simply on the basis of emotion. She realizes that she is an overly emotional person and that her emotions especially cannot be trusted. Zen, also, teaches that emotions are illusions, physical manifestations of our desires. But rather than suppressing these emotions, as some Western philosophies encourage, Zen teaches the student to sit, experience the emotions, and acknowledge them for what they are – illusions. Yet, God cannot be reached through logic alone, as our world is an incredibly illogical place. And so we’ve been looking for different ways to help her connect with the spiritual, and we’re hoping zazen might be it. As we sit, still our minds, and peel away the veneer, hopefully what we find on the other side is satori. Or, as we’re hoping, God.

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