A Perfect Baby Blessing

Months ago, my husband and I decided we’d each give Ava a baby blessing. It was a very controversial decision for an LDS family to make.  That is because, in our church, only fathers with the higher priesthood may participate in the public blessing and naming ritual for new infants.  Mothers must sit among the congregants while the baby is being blessed.

But my husband and I are products of a country where, outside of religion, women and men are very nearly equal.  As a parent, I want to send a clear message to our daughter, beginning with her first blessing, that this equality would not end at the doors of the church.   I don’t have the priesthood—but I don’t need the priesthood to give my child a blessing.  I have the right, as a daughter of God, to pray over my children, and expect He will provide guidance, blessings and inspiration in return.

Ava

And so, with only our parents and bishop to witness, Jang held Ava first and gave her a beautiful blessing, which I recorded.  I won’t share it all, but the most touching moment came when he asked God to give her “the strength to know that it’s okay to be different and to be yourself.”  He continued, “I bless you with the desire to accomplish great things in your life…with ambition and leadership that you can be a shining light to other people.  That other people can look to you as someone who is faithful and trustworthy.”  Since a baby blessing more often conveys the parent’s hopes for the child, rather than any prophecy, hearing my husband say these things about our daughter warmed my heart.  I hope Ava will be a trailblazer and example for many people, both inside the LDS faith and outside of it.  We smiled at each other when he finished.

Then it was my turn.  I’d stayed outside the priesthood circle, at my hubby’s request, but now I stepped forward to hold my child.  The bishop, my father and father-in-law stood somewhat awkwardly around me.  I’m sure none of them had any idea what this moment would look like.  Truth be told, neither did I. It was a blessing my own mother had never voiced.  I felt a little uncomfortable coming forward then— but the instant Ava was in my arms, her face brightened, and I felt a calmness come over me.  She recognized me, her mother—and as her mother, this was exactly what I should be doing for her.  Thankfully, I’d thought and prayed beforehand about what I wanted to say; and when all the men had moved to the side or taken their seats, I began to speak:

“Ava this is a special day for you.  This is a day where all your family is gathered together to celebrate your birth.  We’re so very happy you’re a part of our family.  You’ve been blessed with an even temperament and a sweet nature, and we truly hope that these character traits continue in your life.  As your mother, I pray that Heavenly Father will bless you with the ability to clearly know right from wrong, and to be a guide for your siblings and an inspiration for those around you.  It’s important now to stand for things that are right and true.  We hope that you’ll always stick close to the Church and close to your Heavenly Father, and say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

As I spoke, I somehow felt a rightness to my words.  I wondered if that is how fathers feel when they bless their children.  In that moment, I was happy, surrounded by family as I held my baby daughter.  I had stuck to my commitment to bless her out of sheer principle—there had been times when Jang and I wondered if it would be worth it to go ahead with the mother’s blessing, fearing how our friends or church leaders would react.  But I can tell you, when we each blessed our daughter in turn, it felt so right; so complete.  As parents, we are a team, and we stood together that day.  And I believe God stood with us as well.

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God Exists

Cloister-Aug04-DC3866sAR800

“What if it’s all fake—what if God doesn’t really exist?” It’s a question that I’m sure we’ve all had at some point in our lives. There are several experiences in my life that have proven to me that God exists. They’re not miraculous or newsworthy; but to me they’re undeniable proofs that He lives.

A decade ago, I was in an England study abroad program. We were learning about art and literature, and I soaked up our visits to cultural landmarks, museums, and castles. Yet, even as I threw myself into the experience, I soon found myself homesick. I called my parents regularly, but this wasn’t enough to remove my feelings of loneliness. I became very sick and depressed, and started to skip school excursions and social gatherings because I didn’t have the energy to attend them.

I tried to make myself “snap out of it,” but I wasn’t successful. It wasn’t long before I realized I needed help. As a Christian, I believed that God could heal me; but my prayers, to that point, hadn’t yielded any result.
I had also been raised to believe that I could be healed through a priesthood blessing. Finding I couldn’t be healed through my faith alone, I finally worked up the courage to ask another student for a blessing. We had only spoken a couple of times, always in a group setting, and he knew very little about me. But he readily agreed to give me the blessing that evening. What would follow was one of the most powerful priesthood blessings I’ve ever had.

This young man was soft-spoken, and clearly shy around girls. You had to look directly at him in a conversation to fully understand him. But when he laid his hands on my head, there was no hesitation when he said I would be healed. Then his voice continued, strong and clear: “God knows the desires of your heart,” he told me, “He’s heard your prayers, and someday, your family will be close with one another.”

To this point, I haven’t told you the full extent of my problems. This struggle with homesickness wasn’t new for me; I’d wrestled with these feelings since, at age seventeen, I had left home to attend college in Utah, thousands of miles away. Even if the man blessing me had guessed my illness was somehow psychological, he would have no way of knowing the severity of these feelings, or the fact that my depression and feelings of alienation continued when I was at home.

Ball Family Pic Dec 2014

Already two semesters into college, I was quickly finding that my short visits home during the summers did not make me feel any less lonely. Most people have a need for love and acceptance from their family. My family generally holds their emotions very close—we didn’t share feelings or talk about our internal struggles; in short, we did not take the time to truly get to know each others’ emotional needs, much less try to fulfill them. Thus, going home for me was, in many ways, as emotionally unsatisfying as being away from home. And I was left struggling to find a way of connecting with my family to fill the huge hole this left in my heart.

At the time I received this blessing, I hadn’t quite figured out why my visits home left me feeling so solitary. I just knew that I wanted my family to be closer, and I often prayed for this to happen. Nobody knew what I had been praying for—I hadn’t told a single soul, ever, that this was a very deep desire for me. So when this shy, reserved man started to talk about my family, and promise me that my prayers would be answered and my family would be closer, I knew that only God would be able to tell him this.

When I reflect on what my story means to me, I think about the Biblical account of the woman at the well, in ancient Syria. In the story, Jesus asked a Samaritan woman to draw him water. She resisted at first, and a verbal exchange followed. In this conversation, Jesus revealed to the woman details about her life that he, a stranger, could not have possibly known. The woman went away in amazement and told all the city, “ Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?”

I used to overlook this story as one of the lesser miracles of Jesus; but thinking about my own experience, I’m struck by how simply, but effectively, Christ was able to reveal himself to her as a prophet, even the Son of God. There are too many stories to count of those who have seen miracles in the world. But, if there is any weakness in these accounts, it lies in their physicality.  With time, we can second-guess anything that we alone see, touch, feel or hear. Too often, I do not write my spiritual experiences down, and the emotions or sensations that I felt at the time become diminished; until, eventually, I forget the miracle.

That’s why this blessing was so special; it was not something I alone experienced.  If I’d heard a voice in my head saying these same words, or only had a feeling in my heart, I could have one day disbelieved in them, because I so often doubt my thoughts and feelings. But God took it upon Himself to inspire a young man, a virtual stranger, to discern the thoughts and intents of my heart—and so His existence is something I can never deny.  Ten years ago, I wrote that experience down.  And it will remain forever etched in my memory as a testimony that God lives and is aware of me. And He is aware of my family as well.

 

Why the LDS Church Needs Feminists

I’d like to reflect on my upbringing in the Church. To me, the Church’s relationship towards women alternates between benign patriarchy and austere rigidity. This was demonstrated to me from a young age, as I heard from my leaders about the woman I was supposed to be.

This lesson came from the top-down, most notably during General Conference. In the dearth of female speakers, we listened to the aged men before us tell us about their saintly mothers, persevering wives, and angelic daughters. They taught us to be ministering angels, selfless spouses, and gentle advocates for Christ. We were their better halves, with a divine nature that was to be both celebrated and protected, at all costs.

These spiritual giants told us that we were the true examples of Christ like behavior to the men and children under our care, but in the same breath upheld the divine mandate that men were to preside over us in family and Church life. If a woman should ever wish to leave her divinely appointed role as a stay at home mother, she was in some way going against the mandate of God. The ideal woman supported and upheld the men in her life, from infancy to adulthood, never asking for a thank you or recognition in return. For her entire life, she would be a silent witness as her man achieved prestige and recognition, both professionally and in the Church.

The majority of lessons and activities for LDS girls seemed focused on molding each of us into this “ideal” woman. Our virtue was one of our most important assets, and so in conduct, thought, and language, we had to be pure. Upholding this rigid standard was even more imperative because, owing to our more spiritual natures, we had to protect the men in our lives from transgressing the law of chastity, either in thought or in deed. Cultivating the Spirit was essential to this end; and so we had to regulate our music, television, movies, conversation, and, most importantly, our dress.  We were repeatedly counseled that Christ had said if a man looked on a woman to lust after her, he was committing adultery already in his heart.  We would literally be leading the young men down the path to hellfire if we did not scrupulously moderate our dress, the most easily identifiable way of controlling the men’s nearly uncontrollable sexual libido.  For the modest young woman, wearing sleeveless dresses or short skirts was anathema. A glimpse of shoulder or thigh could easily cause a young man to have sinful thoughts. In that case, the sin was equally ours.

If, Heaven forbid, we were to transgress sexually, we would be forever tainted by that act. In pointed analogies, we were told we would be broken vessels, or chewed up gum, should we commit this sin. Losing our virginity before marriage would be a scar that would mar our souls, and we would forever know that we hadn’t remained true and faithful to our commitments.

Every Wednesday, we would hold activities (often involving crafting or cooking) and socialize with the young men, who we knew were being molded to become strong, confident providers for us. In Sunday lessons, when we were divided into our all-girls meeting, we would hear stories about the spiritual promptings that shaped our leaders’ lives: when they knew their husband was “the one”; the many times they’d had to rely on the sensitive whisperings of the Spirit to perform their roles as housewives and mothers. Never were we encouraged to work outside the home; this was only a last resort, if our husbands turned out to be unable to provide. I remember feeling a secret shame for that archetypal, incapable husband. Correspondingly, we were encouraged to pursue higher education, but it was only to complement our future roles as spouses and mothers. Education was, at its heart, a contingency plan. I can only remember a single lesson, in the five years that I was in this youth program, when the girls had a career night—one of the highlighted careers being a stay at home mom.

During the summers, while the young men went on grueling 3-day bike rides, white water rafting trips, and camped out in primitive conditions (all to bond them to one another and to develop the inner strength needed to confront the hard world) we had  “Girls Camp”. Our Camp emphasized spiritual, as opposed to physical, development, and so for five days we would recline in comfortable cabins, eat prepared meals and have activities designed for our enjoyment. We would do crafts, cook foil-wrapped dinners, play volleyball, and have testimony meetings on the well-manicured grass at nights. At all times, women and priesthood leaders supervised us; and at night, the men would take shifts to patrol the camp, scaring girls who ventured out after bedtime by rustling the bushes, making us shriek with fear and run back to the safety of our locked cabins.

Every significant role in Church was, and still is, held by men. The Bishop served as a spiritual guide to the ward. He and his male counselors always sat at the front pulpit on Sundays, directing the meetings, calling upon speakers, and supervising the administration of the sacrament. He collected our tithing, gave regular addresses to the congregation, and we confessed our sins (even those of a sensitive nature) to him. His counselors supervised the running of the ward as well—overseeing activities, conducting interviews, and handling all monetary transactions in the ward. Ultimately, all planned activities, all callings, and all Church meetings needed the approval of this man, the Bishop, before they could proceed.

Our male counterparts, the young men, carried out the sacrament. For a few moments every Sunday, these goofy boys would transform into solemn priesthood holders as they meticulously repeated the words of the sacrament prayers and blessed the bread and water. Then, in a uniform, white-shirted column, they passed the sacrament to the congregation. In this way, the entire sacrament became, not only a moment to remember Christ, but an opportunity to see the overriding patriarchy of God’s Church in action.

As a youth, I struggled against this institutional inequality; from my insistence on wearing pants (so I could somehow feel equal to the men) to my failed attempts to organize the first-ever white water rafting trip for young women.  When I went to college at BYU, there was less of a division between men and women in our youth wards—we were similar ages and had shared activities—but the structure of the Church was the same. In addition, I was also surrounded with adult byproducts of this youth training program. The consequences for not conforming to Church norms would be social rejection.

As I finished my undergraduate studies, then an LDS mission, I found myself an unmarried and working adult. The only option for me then was graduate school—this would serve the dual purpose of buying me more time to get married, and better equipping me for a rewarding job if I could not find a spouse.

In the rigorous intellectual environment of BYU Law School, I began to consciously address the pain from my LDS upbringing for the first time.  I realized my childhood in the Church had some positive, as well as negative, results. My upbringing had cultivated in me a feeling of worth as a child of God, a strong sense of right and wrong, and an enquiring mind. However, one of the reasons I even attended law school was because I had graduated college with no career plans. No one in my Church experience had prepared me for the “what ifs” of life as a single adult. I was terrified of being a working adult with only an undergraduate education, because my degree did not guarantee me a rewarding and satisfying job. Only through the gentle prodding of my parents did I begin to study law.

Then, as a lawyer, I found myself confronting this same anxiety. Why, I wondered, as a well-educated adult, would I still feel ill equipped and frightened of going out into the work force? Goodness knows my parents had always encouraged me to have a prestigious career. I can only point to the messages I received from the Church, both stated and un-stated, as the root of this anxiety. By differentiating us at a young age, often with separate activities and separate doctrinal lessons, I was taught that I was different from the young men. The General Authorities and local leaders then answered the question of how I was different. At heart, I was a foil to them—more sensitive, tenderer, more spiritually inclined. I was not to compete with the men in my life—I was to complement them. My highest calling in life would be to raise and nurture children, and so any vocational aspirations would take away from fulfilling this goal. Ultimately, I was at no loss to explain my inadequate and fearful feelings of being a career woman—it’s a wonder I contemplated pursuing a legal career at all!

I support the doctrine of the family and the priesthood; but I am troubled by the control that men have in nearly all aspects of Church administration, both temporal and spiritual.  Does it take having the priesthood to manage the finances of a ward; to conduct a sacrament meeting; to organize ourselves as women and young women; even to pass the sacrament? Why is there this overriding need of the men in the Church to elevate women on a pedestal while denying them full expression as human beings? I am not a foil to you men. I am not a complement to you, your other half, or your ideal spiritual being. I am a child of God, and the standard I should be held to is how my character emulates Christ’s—not your sainted mother, your silent wife, or your revered pioneer ancestress.

I hope, as men and women of my generation assume leadership roles in their wards, stakes and areas of the Church, this cultural inflexibility towards women’s roles will change. The young women of today need us to be their examples, need so-called “feminist” women to speak up, assume more leadership roles, and prepare for futures outside of the roles of mother and homemaker. Let us grow and develop as individuals, not to be viewed as lesser or greater than you men. In the end, we are all equal before God.

 

How Losing My Sister Changed My Faith

I’m a fervent believer in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I sometimes post on controversial issues (on Facebook or otherwise), and because of this people often question my beliefs.  It’s a fair question, if you only interact with me in the virtual world.  But I have a deep religious faith.  Because I want you to understand the sincerity of my beliefs, I’ll share a story that, while difficult for me to recount, helped define my life and testimony.

In 2006, I went to serve as a missionary for the LDS Church in Arequipa, Peru.  I entered the Arequipa mission with all the optimism and joy of a newly called missionary.  The mission was a prosperous one, as far as gaining converts was concerned.  My companions and I had no shortage of people to speak to, and we taught several missionary lessons daily.  Seeing large numbers of inactive members, we visited them often, and soon our small branches started to grow.  After six months, I had gained enough experience to become a senior companion.

Tacna, Peru, 2006.
Tacna, Peru, 2006.

The brightness of these early days soon dimmed, however, with alarming news from home.  In October 2006, my mom wrote that my sister, Jennifer, was experiencing some severe pain in her hip.  Soon, the doctors came back with a terrifying diagnosis.  Jen had soft tissue sarcoma.  I cried when I heard, and immediately started fasting for her.

It wasn’t long before my sister and mom had scheduled a barrage of tests and arranged a treatment plan for Jennifer.  Surprisingly, I was able to still focus on proselyting and find joy in the work.  I remember sincerely feeling that, if I worked hard, God would bless my family and maybe, just maybe, Jen’s cancer would go into remission.

Jennifer had surgery to remove her tumor in December 2006—but the cancer had invaded the bone too deeply, and the doctors also had to remove her leg.  When I spoke with her on Christmas Day 2006, she seemed well, although I’ve since learned from my family the time after her surgery was immensely painful for her.

Then, on February 14, 2007, I received a brief phone call, summoning me see to the Mission President in Arequipa.  I was in Puno, high in the Andean mountains.  My companion and I took the six-hour bus ride to Arequipa and I was ushered into the President’s office.  He quietly told me my parents had called with bad news about my sister; then he left me alone to call them.  Moments later, I listened to my mom say, in a trembling voice, that Jennifer’s cancer was terminal.  She had little time left, a month at most.  I started to cry, and I’m crying writing this now.

Later I learned Jennifer had asked my parents to hide from me the seriousness of her cancer.  Up to that point, I had hoped that she would still beat the disease somehow, that I would be able to see her when I got home from my mission.  I just remember my mom kept repeating, “It’s all right, it’s all right, she’s suffering so much anyway, I’d prefer she go.”

I immediately asked my parents when I could come home to see her.  Their response shocked me—“Don’t come home.”  Jen wanted me to stay in the mission, they explained, and I had to stay in the mission I’d been called to.  I still don’t think any of them knew what they were asking of me.

After hanging up, I called Jen.  She was medicated and couldn’t speak much. I mostly remember telling her, over and over, that I loved her.

Of course, I started fasting for Jen the next day.  After a lot of prayer, I asked the President if I could visit Jen, before she passed. I had also made a very difficult decision—if Pres. Galli’s answer was “no”, then I would stay in the mission God had called me to.  I knew I was supposed to be there, helping some very unique individuals to come to Christ.  President Galli’s response was direct:  if I visited home, I would have to stay there, and I may or may not be reassigned to a stateside mission.  It was exactly the answer I didn’t want.  But I had received a confirmation from God that I was to stay in Peru and finish my mission there. 

Pres. Galli also gave me permission to call Jennifer and my parents when I wished; but every time I called Jen after February 15, our conversations were always short.  She became progressively less coherent over time.

That period was so difficult.  Although I didn’t waver in my decision, I frequently worried about my sister and family.  Saying this, I do know that as many times as I felt grief, I also felt spiritually quieted.  Constant prayer and a priesthood blessing brought me moments of peace and consolation.  The Spirit reconfirmed my decision to stay in the mission more than once, and although I could not feel true joy, I found solace in my work as a missionary.

On March 10, 2007, Jennifer died.  Both her husband and my mother were by her side.  It hurt all of us, so much.  But it was a small comfort to know she was no longer in pain.  Because she had served in the military in Iraq, many of her fellow soldiers attended her funeral—”a sea of green” in the crowd, my parents later told me with pride.

I had some hard times after Jen’s death.  But I, and my companions, continued to teach, and some of these people were baptized.  I grieved, but I also felt a strong desire to focus on my mission. I think I wanted to make our sacrifices (both Jen’s and mine) count.  Many times, I reflected on the Plan of Salvation.  I was so grateful for my firm belief in the Plan, and its core principle—that families can be united forever in heaven.  What an amazing doctrine!  When Jennifer died, I knelt down and thanked God for this Plan, and that we could be together again.

While I don’t know why these struggles came to us,  I do know this experience profoundly shaped my belief in an all-knowing Heavenly Father.  During this time, I came to know and love Him as He comforted me time and again. His guidance helped me develop a deep and abiding faith in His Gospel, the Plan of Salvation, and personal revelation.  By the end of my mission, I had changed into someone who held these beliefs close to my heart. They’re an indivisible part of me—knowledge I’ve bought with pain, and loss, and sacrifice.

Jennifer Ball Cooper, my sister
Jennifer Ball Cooper, my sister.