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.

Advertisements

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.

 

Not my Baby

This April, you won’t see us blessing our daughter in a church. Her father won’t hold her up, Lion King-style, in front of an admiring audience as I sit silently in the back pew. This decision makes us atypical among our Mormon friends. But I simply don’t like the message that the typical baby blessing projects—that Jang, as the head of our household, is the only one worthy enough to bless and present our baby before the congregation.

Let me just tell you how our family works; there is no head of the household.  Jang and I approach religious worship as we do all other aspects of our marriage—as equals.  That’s not to say there’s no division of duties; I recently became—gulp!—a stay-at-home mom.  Thus, by default, I get to make many of the day-to-day decisions on raising our kids. Jang is the “breadwinner” and full-time working parent.  So, although he asks my opinion on many work-related things, he does not consult with me on most decisions about how to run his law firm. It’s not because we necessarily believe in proscribed gender roles; this division of duties, for us, is about what is practical.

But excluding mothers from participating in baby blessings serves no practical purpose.  It is only about division, about demonstrating the “proper” priesthood order that governs the Church today.  In doing so, I believe the Church undermines women’s roles in creating and raising that baby; some would see it as another example of how women are marginalized in the Church today.

Let me tell you the thoughts that go through my head when I think about letting my daughter be blessed in the traditional way. For nine months, I suffered intense bouts of nausea, terrible acid reflux and exhaustion, before laboring to bring her into this world.  Since then, I’ve been her constant companion.  Often, mine is the first face she sees in the morning and the last one before she sleeps at night. In my divine role as her mother, I’m responsible for her nurturing, care and safety. Yet, on the day when she is recognized by my Church, and given a name and a blessing, I’m essentially nothing to her; I don’t even have the standing to be able to bring her before my fellow members and say, “Look! Here is my daughter.”  Nope; I’m just another face in the crowd.  Any adult Melchizedek priesthood holder, although a stranger to her, can participate in this blessing circle. But not me.

View More: http://kayla-brooke.pass.us/ava

I had the traditional baby blessing with my first child. I won’t apologize for this decision; my husband and I wanted to include our new ward in the blessing, because of their many kindnesses to us. Before the blessing, I remember asking the Bishop if I could record it, so that my son could later listen to his father’s words. That request was met with such a firm (if kind) no, I didn’t dare ask if I could participate in the blessing circle. Later, I regretted my choice.  I now firmly believe that there is no justification for prohibiting me, or any other woman, from participating in blessing her child.

The thing is, my ideas about revelation and blessings have come a long way since first blessing our son almost three years ago. I know now that every person, whether a priesthood holder or not, has the right to ask for (even promise) blessings upon their family. I’ve discarded the image of my husband as being the head of our family and the primary source of God’s revelation for us. As my children’s mother and primary caregiver, I know their spirits and personalities more intimately than anyone. And while I emphatically believe in the sacredness of priesthood blessings, and I believe my husband will receive revelation to guide our children’s future lives, I also know I can too.

And so, we’ve made a decision; this time around, we won’t bless our baby in a church. Her father won’t carry her ceremoniously up to the mount of revelation, leaving me behind with the masses. In this at least, I will not be a second-class participant in my children’s religious lives. Not only will I hold her during the blessing, I may even say a few words about my baby as well. Because, if I speak, it will be as a mother who prays over her children constantly, and who has already called down numerous blessings from Heavenly Father for her small family. Asking God for revelation and blessings, particularly concerning my children, is something I am entitled to do as a mother, without regard for any institution (religious or otherwise) on this earth. And so, if I choose to speak, I have no doubt the Spirit can be with me, as well as my husband, to give us direction for her future life. I don’t need for it to be officially recognized by the Church for the words to proceed from God. In conducting the blessing this way, I do not feel I’m undermining my husband’s priesthood authority; I hope I am complementing it.

I hope the blessing can be an opportunity for our family to establish healthy interactions, not only with the Mormon church, but with one another as well.  With this decision, I want to show my children that their father and I are equals before God, both at home and at Church.  And since that equality is not apparent in the blessings that take place in Church today, our daughter’s will take place where it belongs—in our home.

And I’m recording the entire thing, darn it.

Apostasy: What is it Again?

I was glad to have the First Presidency issue a statement on recent events. The excommunication of Ordain Women co-founder, Kate Kelly (along with pending disciplinary actions against other Mormon individuals) has thrown the Mormon world, not to mention my world, into a furor.


The First Presidency’s statement reads:

In God’s plan for the happiness and eternal progression of His children, the blessings of His priesthood are equally available to men and women. Only men are ordained to serve in priesthood offices. All service in the Church has equal merit in the eyes of God. We express profound gratitude for the millions of Latter-day Saint women and men who willingly and effectively serve God and His children. Because of their faith and service, they have discovered that the Church is a place of spiritual nourishment and growth.

We understand that from time to time Church members will have questions about Church doctrine, history, or practice. Members are always free to ask such questions and earnestly seek greater understanding. We feel special concern, however, for members who distance themselves from Church doctrine or practice and, by advocacy, encourage others to follow them.

Simply asking questions has never constituted apostasy. Apostasy is repeatedly acting in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its faithful leaders, or persisting, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine.

The Council of
The First Presidency and
Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints


This statement is, to my knowledge, the first time the LDS Church has publicly disclosed the definition of “apostasy” as provided in the LDS Church Handbook of Instructions (Vol.1).  Volume 1 of the Church Handbook outlines the responsibilities of Church leaders and provides detailed information about Church policies and procedures, including how disciplinary councils are held (i.e.,  ecclesiastical trials during which a member of the Church is tried for alleged violations of Church standards). Coincidentally, this particular Handbook is only available to certain ecclesiastical leaders in the Church, and so the procedure of disciplinary councils, and even what constitutes an ex-communicable offense, is often a mystery to the average LDS lay member.

Why is apostasy such an important word here? Generally, it is the reason why members are currently being excommunicated from the Church. In the end, apostasy is the charge by which, if proven at a disciplinary council, the Church revokes an individual’s membership and temple covenants.

Oh snap. That’s clear, isn’t it?  The Church says its okay to ask questions.  It’s sad the First Presidency even has to iterate this point, but if my recent Facebook discussions have taught me anything, it’s that this point actually needs to be made. So, for the record, ASKING QUESTIONS = OKAY.

In asking these questions, you’re only in danger of committing apostasy if you do one of two things:  1) Repeatedly act in clear, deliberate and open public (CDOP) opposition to the Church or it’s faithful leaders; or 2) Persist, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine. First, acting in CDOP opposition to the Church or its faithful leaders. That obviously means you can ask questions if the answers correspond with Church doctrine, but you can’t ask questions in a way that opposes the Church leaders…doctrine…practices…customs…culture….wait, have I gone too far afield here?


1. Repeatedly Acting in Clear, Deliberate and Open Public Opposition to the Church or its Faithful Leaders.

What is the right way to ask controversial questions, without acting in opposition to the Church? Should we not talk about topics that might make the Church or its leaders look bad, or un-clarified doctrine? Are we allowed to regularly disagree with our Sunday School teachers? Write opinions that differ from the Mormon mainstream on a blog post?

Acting “in clear, deliberate and open public opposition” may seem like a sufficiently restrictive term; but it can actually be applied to a wide range of behavior and discourse, whose characterization as CDOP opposition would be almost entirely based, not on how the agitator feels about his or her actions, but on how the recipient of the agitation  perceives this opposition.  The Science magazine offers a wonderful analysis of this behavior: simply put, we judge others’ behavior primarily by what we observe (their actions), but we judge our own behavior by our actions, thoughts, feelings and intentions. So we can often misperceive the intentions and feelings behind others’ actions.

Ally Isom and the Church Public Affairs department have a real problem with improper tone. However, if our brief foray into psychology has taught us anything, it is that we don’t all measure impropriety the same way. Therefore, behavior that may seem like deliberate antagonism and rebellion to an institution, may be perceived as necessary agitation and debate to the actors. Without defending their actions, I believe this is the disconnect that exists between some Ordain Women members and their ecclesiastical leaders.

In a June 19, 2014 press statement, Jessica Moody, from the Church Public Affairs department, emphasized just how important an individual’s perceived intent is when the Church analyzes his or her behavior: “How and why one asks is as important as the questions we’re asking.”

Ms. Moody continues, “What causes concern for Church leaders is when personal motivations drive those conversations beyond discussion, and a person or group begins recruiting others to insist on changes in Church doctrines or structure. When it goes so far as creating organized groups, staging public events to further a cause or creating literature for members to share in their local congregations, the Church has to protect the integrity of its doctrine as well as other members from being misled.”

So, sharing your opinions in local Sunday School meetings is okay.  Asking questions in chat rooms, on Facebook, and on a blog seems to be okay too.  It’s the tone and the persuasiveness of your arguments that could get you into trouble. And your tone will be judged by what the Church, as your ultimate judge, perceives your intentions and motivations to be.

On the one hand, I feel like the Church spokeswoman is saying, “You will know if you have proper intentions in asking your questions. If you publicly air controversial views, make sure you’re not trying to persuade others to take that winding path. Learn from Ordain Women.  Don’t petition, demonstrate, or put out informative pamphlets trying to change Church doctrine or structure.”

On the other hand, my cynical mind would add the following interpretation to Ms. Moody’s Public Affairs statement: “If you advocate for a position that isn’t strictly in keeping with Church practice, feel free to express your opinions—just don’t oppose current Church practice/doctrine/policy. And if you do, act alone; don’t make your arguments too persuasive, so that other people follow you.”

Following this logical trail leaves me with several concerns. How effective an examination of Church doctrine/practice/policy can we make, before running the risk of a disciplinary council? Should we just keep the difficult questions a private matter as Kate Kelly’s leaders counseled her? I want to voice my questions and opinions and have a sounding board for these thoughts.

There’s merit in public discussion: when you publicly discuss and develop your ideas, you get to see if they make sense.  If your ideas are logically sound, won’t others be attracted to your ideas, and start to share them, then possibly follow them…and is this wrong, even if the ideas are controversial?

It seems, with Kate Kelly’s excommunication, the Church is trying to set some clear boundaries about what its members cannot do—recruit others to insist on changes in Church doctrines or structure (that’s an interesting one); organize into groups; stage public events to further a cause [to change doctrines or structure]; or create literature for members to share in their local congregations. All of which Ordain Women has done. To this list, Elder Whitney Clayton would unofficially add that public advocacy for the ordination of women is apostasy, advice which Kate Kelly’s local leaders took all-too literally.

At this point, I feel I should mention that neither the Church Public Affairs statements, nor Elder Clayton’s private remarks, are doctrine. I’m not sure if, under the strict meaning of the word, even the First Presidency Statement is doctrine. However, at the very least, these comments reflect current Church culture, practice, and the standards by which questioning minds will be judged today.


2. Persisting, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine. The First Presidency press release also cautions against statements that contain “false teachings” or which mislead other members. This corresponds with the second part of the definition of apostasy provided by the First Presidency: persisting, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine.  Clearly, Kate Kelly’s local leaders felt impelled to correct false doctrinal teachings about women and the priesthood. To that end, Ms. Kelly’s stake president asked her to take down her website, disassociate herself from Ordain Women and publicly repent. Her refusal to do so led to her excommunication.

Putting aside for a moment that women’s ordination to the priesthood is neither fully supported nor contradicted within Mormon doctrine, it’s difficult for us on the blogosphere, who are interested in this topic, to know from this ecclesiastical counsel exactly what we can and cannot say on the subject.

Let’s just say we won’t advocate for the ordination of women. Then we’ll be safe from charges of apostasy, right?  Unfortunately, Kate Kelly is only one of several Mormon activists facing disciplinary action for airing their opinions: those facing charges of apostasy include John Dehlin, gay rights advocate and founder of the Mormon Stories podcast; Alan Rock Waterman, founder of the Pure Mormonism blog; and now-excommunicated Denver Snuffer, Jr., author and founder of the Denver Snuffer blog. Their writings analyze, and advocate, the writers’ beliefs about a diverse range of subjects—same-sex marriage and attraction; church history and theology; the corporate arm of the Church; and doctrinal topics like priestcraft, the Word of Wisdom, current tithing practices, and polygamy.

I can only assume their local leaders relied on the definition of apostasy provided in Church Handbook of Instructions (Vol. 1), in deciding to charge these members with apostasy. And the truth is, each and every one of these individuals could be found guilty of the charge—because, in the end, the definition of apostasy is, well… so darn broad.

Apostasy is repeatedly acting in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its faithful leaders, or persisting, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine.

To be fair, the local LDS leaders did instruct these individuals (I’ll call them the Foursome) what they could do to avoid excommunication.  However, these leaders did not always iterate what specific beliefs got the Foursome into trouble in the first place, or why these beliefs contradicted Church doctrine. This concerns me, a blogger, because in some instances the individuals were actually excommunicated, without knowing why their beliefs were false.

What’s more, local leaders have a lot of discretion in deciding whether individual has taught false doctrine, or acted in opposition to the Church and its faithful leaders.  Church spokeswoman Jessica Moody recently commented on this subject, “[The] standard procedural handbook says: ‘Local presiding officers should not expect General Authorities to tell them how to decide difficult matters. Decisions on Church discipline are within the discretion and authority of local presiding officers as they prayerfully seek guidance from the Lord.’ ”

So, even if the Foursome’s ecclesiastical leaders had clarified the false doctrinal teachings for these individuals, their leaders’ explanations would not apply to any interpretations my bishop or stake president might have of Church doctrine.

There are undoubtedly positive results from giving local Church leaders discretion in convening disciplinary councils and defining apostate behavior and beliefs. Disciplinary councils are at times referred to as “councils of love” because they can offer a repentance process based on that member’s particular sins (and there are a multitude of ways to sin). Many leaders who have participated in these councils will say they have felt the presence of the Lord’s Spirit attending them during the process.

But even with all those positive accounts, there is no member of the Church who wants to be in front of a disciplinary council. And, unfortunately, even with recent statements by Church Public Affairs and the Office of the First Presidency outlining some unacceptable behavior, I’m not sure a critical thinker and writer within the Church will know how to clearly avoid prohibitive Church actions in the future.

The New York Times and the Huffington Post report at least dozen Mormons in the U.S. are facing discipline for expressing criticisms of the Church or support for same-sex marriage or women’s ordination on-line, with several more unofficial reports of disciplinary action coming in across the blogosphere.

I’d hope an LDS member with questions finds his or her Church leaders to be a generally tolerant group; but our leaders’ current scrutiny of social media is troubling. And there is still a lot of gray area when it comes to defining what makes an online discussion acceptable or unacceptable; not only because apostasy is so broadly defined, but because our local leaders have great discretion when disciplining the members in their jurisdiction.

I’ve heard a fair number of stories where local Church leaders responded to questions about LDS doctrine and practice with acceptance, respect and even support. I’ve also heard several accounts when the individuals were very surprised their bishops had taken exception to their online comments. It’s important to note here that no disciplinary action takes place in a vacuum. I’d like to think it takes more than just one online comment, Facebook post or discussion group to violate Church policy and irk your local leaders.

For good or for ill, the Church disciplinary process is a very localized affair that relies on subjective interpretations of, not only doctrine, but also an individual’s behavior, intentions, and beliefs. Done under the perfect guidance of the Holy Spirit, I actually believe this can be a good implementation of ecclesiastical judgment.

However, when such an active community of bloggers, writers, chatters and Facebook posters is given only general guidelines, and varying implementation of those guidelines, it’s also hard to know when we risk Church discipline for an expressed thought. As someone who explores her faith through questioning, exploring and discussing her ideas, I’d like to know before I’m in danger of the judgment; facing the great unknown of the disciplinary council is a gamble I just don’t want to make.


For a list of references used in this post, click here. This is not an official web site of the LDS Church.