Last week we went to the beach in North Carolina. Annie invited a group of her high school friends to join us.
Every night after dinner we asked each other probing questions and talked about the big concepts of life.
Is there a God?
If so, what is He like?
Does God have a plan for us or are we in complete charge of our lives?
What beliefs and values shape your life?
Where do you want to be in 10 years?
What is faith?
Why do some people have faith and others don’t?
How can someone really live by faith?
Why is it so central to some people and irrelevant to others?
How do you know whether something is true and is there such a thing as truth?
This group of 19-year old college students astound me with their passion for answers to these questions.
They are achievement-oriented and live their lives “on purpose.”
They believe that being their best matters.
They believe in being good people and they know right from wrong. Even though there are many questions on their minds, they are clear about their own ethics and morals. They are true to what they believe even though they are still sorting out what it is they really believe.
They all come from different religion backgrounds and some grew up without any religious influence in their lives at all.
Yet, they yearn to define themselves. They want to stand for something.
Part of me wanted to tell them all the answers to these life questions because after living so many years, I’ve figured a lot of things out.
But part of me relished the conversation, the struggle, the growth that comes from figuring out life on your own.
I enjoyed listening to what they wonder about, what scares and worries them.
I learned their fears and questions aren’t much different from my own, and that while I have a strong set of beliefs and values, I have much to learn from them.
I wanted to tell them what it’s like to grow up and finally have all the answers.
I discovered two problems with that.
First, we only learn by experience and by figuring things out ourselves.
Second, and most important, I still don’t have all the answers.
Even after all these years of forming my own beliefs and relying on a certain set of religious guideposts, I still have a lot to learn.
And I love learning it from optimistic, bright, questioning 19-year olds whose minds are on fire with curiosity.
There is power in their intellectual form of gymnastics as they ask hard questions, and seek inspired answers.
Our conversations reminded me of Mormon Church President Gordon B. Hinckley’s words: “The time has come for us to stand a little taller, to lift our eyes and stretch our minds to a greater comprehension and understanding of who we are and what we stand for…This is a time to move forward without hesitation, knowing well the meaning, breadth and importance of our own mission…It is a time to do what is right regardless of the consequences…It is a season to reach out with kindness and love to those in distress and to those who are wandering in darkness and pain…It is a time to be considerate and good, decent and courteous toward one another in all our relationships…It is a time to nurture yourself spiritually, intellectually and to have no fears, no doubts about your future.”
This stellar group of friends are living up to these words, giving me no doubts about my future because I feel assured that as I age and they take my place as the responsible adults in life, I am in capable hands.
In my assignment as a public affairs director for my church, I was asked to attend a Holy Cross Lutheran meeting Sunday morning. One of our local congregations was holding a three-week Bible study course on Mormons and what we believe.
Prompted by the presidential election and the possibility of having a Mormon as the Republican nominee, many members of the congregation were asking the pastor questions — could they support a Mormon? Are Mormons Christian? What would it mean to have a Mormon as president of the United States?
To help educate his members, the pastor planned a series of three classes. For the first two classes, he showed videos about the Mormon church. I don’t know what the first week’s video included but I know it prompted a woman to ask her Mormon colleague several questions about what we believe. He happily answered her questions and clarified many of our beliefs.
Then she asked her pastor if she could invite her colleague to their second meeting. The pastor agreed and the woman took her colleague to church with her last week. The pastor showed another video that was produced by a group of ex-Mormons.
You can guess how that video was slanted…
The pastor invited the woman’s colleague to come back to their last meeting, and I and one of my assistants were asked to join him. We welcomed the opportunity to explain who we are and what we believe. When we arrived, the pastor warmly greeted us and then introduced us to his congregation. Then he went on to teach about some of the differences between Mormons and Lutherans. Among them: they believe we are saved by grace alone, and we believe that while Christ’s atonement ultimately saves us all, we are still required to spend our lives doing good works.
He pulled up a page from http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/ about what we believe then he said it was hard to find objective, fair information about the Mormons because on the internet he could only find anti-Mormon or the actual Mormon Church’s official websites.
I believe that the official Church websites are legitimate, credible sources of information, but the pastor’s point was that the Church’s sites are more conversion-oriented than informational so he wasn’t sure he wanted to share that with his members.
I respect that viewpoint although the Church has really worked hard to make more information available for the curious as well as those interested in becoming members.
Just a couple of days before attending this meeting, I read a comment from Krister Stendahl, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69DkoG-m8Agemeritus Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm and professor emeritus of Harvard Divinity School, who said he believed in three rules for religious understanding:
1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies;
2. Don’t compare your best to their worst;
3. Leave room for “holy envy” by finding elements in other faiths to emulate.
He said these principles foster relationships between religions that build trust and lay the groundwork for charitable efforts.
I believe in these three rules.
I’ve never understood why people seek out ex-Mormons to learn about the Mormons. That’s like asking Mitt Romney to tell us all about President Obama. His view will obviously be a little skewed.
I love the third rule: leave room for “holy envy.” If we could follow that one simple rule, imagine how interfaith relationships could be improved — softened and strengthened at the same time, and how that would benefit a community. If we could learn to take the best from each other and build up from there, we could really accomplish something powerful and positive for everyone involved.
As the pastor described different points of doctrine, he graciously allowed us to make corrections as he went along. For example, one member believed that Mormons worship Joseph Smith instead of Christ. We quickly said that we follow Jesus Christ and that Joseph Smith was a prophet and leader of our church whom we hold in high esteem but we worship Christ. A woman behind me said, “Well, then is what we learned wrong?” In unison, all three Mormons in the room, said, “Yes!”
I appreciated the pastor’s willingness to let us speak up, correct and clarify.
After the meeting concluded, many people thanked us for joining them and some wanted more information.
Many of themwere shocked to find out that my assistant public affairs director works for President Obama. They thought all Mormons had to support Mitt Romney. We had an opportunity to dispel that notion.
We have a long way to go in this effort of telling the world who we are and what we believe, but today was another small step forward.
And while all religions may have some doctrinal differences, most of us are seeking to live good lives, help our fellowmen, and strengthen our own relationships with God.
As for “holy envy,” I think that’s a beautiful concept and one that we should more readily embrace. We are all truth seekers who want to understand the world, our purpose and our destiny. When we share the bits of truth and goodness we all have in our religions we build each other up.
I never imagined myself spending a Sunday morning in a Bible study class with the Lutherans talking about my religion, but I think when we respectfully share our faiths, we increase our knowledge and understanding of each other. We promote tolerance and religious freedom.
As Gordon B. Hinckley once said, there really is no room for bigotry, self-righteousness and arrogance. We need friendly dialogue that leads to tolerance, brotherhood, friendship, appreciation of others, respect, kindness and love. We should have quiet, friendly dialogue not vociferous argument and debate.
He said, the world knows “we carry on a vast missionary program in the Church. But it is not argumentative. We do not debate. We, in effect, simply say to others, ‘Bring all the good that you have and let us see if we can add to it.'”
That is a form of “holy envy.”
We all share the good that we have and we all benefit.
In a world fraught with more and more intolerance and disrespect, we could all be better with a little “holy envy.”
I’m sitting in a log cabin in Park City, Utah watching a bird hop from branch to branch on the snow-covered pine tree outside my window. For the first time since I arrived 16 hours ago, the house is quiet.
My group of eleven high school friends finally stopped laughing and visiting and fell asleep at 4 a.m.
I’m the first one awake because my body clock runs on Eastern Standard Time.
Most of us became friends in middle school or earlier, drawn together by our love of laughter and having fun.
After high school our lives went in many different directions.
We fanned out to different colleges, jobs, states, and countries.
We developed new friendships, met husbands, had families, and pursued careers.
But we never forgot about each other.
Years passed when we didn’t see each other.
Then, reunions came along or we planned weekends together.
And each time we got together, the years and the differences melted away.
So here we are in Park City, luxuriating on a snowy night in the warm glow of a fire and surrounded by lifelong friends.
No topic is off-limits.
All conversations stay private.
No one judges anybody else.
All advice is rooted in solid love and planted in the richest, most soul nourishing soil.
As I think about the trajectory of our lives, we have one thing in common.
Each of us has experienced at least one life altering moment that shattered our innocence and reshaped our lives.
Whether it’s the end of a marriage, the death of a spouse, a diagnosis of cancer or the heartbreak of an anorexic child, not one of us has escaped life’s tests.
Marvelously and even miraculously, we’ve all survived, and even become better women because of those tests.
Throughout the evening I wanted to hit the pause button and take a deep breath to absorb the warmth, beauty and tender love that enveloped us. I wanted to bottle it up and take it home with me.
While sitting around the kitchen table eating junk food just like we did in high school, we couldn’t stop laughing at a private joke we’ve enjoyed and embellished for decades.
Then a friend shared a few tasteful but still intimate details about her love life and I said, “Do any of you ever talk or laugh like this with any other friends?”
In unison, everyone said, “NO!”
Partly because our jokes don’t translate well to people who weren’t part of our juvenile world and partly because so much of it is so personal.
It’s like we time travel and become raucous teenagers again and then seamlessly transition back to adults who share a rare kind of trust with each other.
We only see each other every couple years for 24-hour stretches but when we get together wherever we are feels like sacred space.
We feel safe, loved, appreciated, and free to be ourselves in all our immature glory.
Actually, you can’t be anything but your genuine self with people who have known you your entire life.
I love the continuity these friends give to my life. Being with them gives me a “high mountain” perspective that lets me see myself from my starting place to now.
And the real beauty of these friendships that span my lifetime is that they communicate to me in more than words that I am loved, really truly loved and valued for nothing more than who I am.
It doesn’t matter to them what I have achieved or what weaknesses still plague me. They see the core of who I am and who I’ve always been. They don’t expect anything of me or judge me for falling short of my goals. They simply see and appreciate the down-to-earth small-town girl I’ve always been.
So as I look out my window at the snow that blanketed the ground through the night, I enjoy a few minutes of solitude and savor the memory of how I snuggled down into my flannel sheets and warm quilt the night before and fell asleep listening to the giggles of my hometown friends and relished one of the sweetest lullabies I’ve ever heard.
The most commonly asked question in Washington, D.C. is, “Where are you from?”
When I say I’m from Utah, the natural follow-up question is, “Are you Mormon?”
When I say yes, I feel a yellow sticky note coming directly toward my forehead – bam, you’re one of those!
I’m never sure what’s written on that sticky note but based on the questions I’ve been asked and the news articles I’ve read, I can make some pretty good guesses.
A saleslady recently asked me about one of my purchases, wondering if it was for a special occasion. I told her it was for my upcoming trip to Utah.
Then the question, “Are you Mormon?”
“Yes, I’m Mormon,” I said.
“Oh, I love Mormons,” she said. “My best friend in the world is a Mormon. We used to live in Arizona and met so many Mormons. They’re such happy, positive people.
Then the saleslady next to her said, “Mormons are polygamists right?”
That would be a big, fat no.
“But aren’t all those polygamists on TV Mormon?” she asked.
“No, they absolutely are not Mormon,” I said
So if you watch “Big Love” or “Sister Wives” or associate any polygamist groups with my church, stop it. Right now.
Polygamy is illegal.
And, we are law-abiding people.
I get this misunderstanding because the church allowed polygamy in the early days of the church and the media love to dredge it up.
In Newsweek’s article on “The Mormon Moment,” they ran pictures of polygamists with their story leading readers to believe they are associated with the LDS church.
They are not.
Polygamy is not approved or practiced by members of the church today and hasn’t been for over 100 years.
There are groups that claim to be associated with the church or at least claim to have the same origins, and some of them practice polygamy. We do not recognize, protect, or affiliate with any of them in any way.
I like what Gary Lawrence, a pollster in California, wrote in his book, “How Americans View Mormonism.” He said, “We do not hold Roman Catholics responsible for those who broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, and we are not responsible for those who broke away from ours.”
There is talk about polygamy being okay in Mormon heaven.
First, it’s important to note we don’t go to a different heaven. God doesn’t stand at the pearly gates and sort us out by religious affiliations.
Second, if I get to heaven and find out I have to be a second or third wife to Doug or anybody else I’ll blog about it straight from my MacBook Pro. (It wouldn’t be heaven if I didn’t have one.)
I’ll bob and weave my way up through the line of people waiting to talk to God, and the first question I’ll ask will be about polygamy.
Believe me, I will ask about polygamy.
In one of my writing classes I shared chapters of a memoir I’ve been writing about growing up in a mostly Mormon town in an unconventional Mormon family.
There was drinking in my family, you know, as in forbidden alcohol.
Shocking, I know, but true.
One of the rules was that while the class discussed our writing, we had to remain silent, just taking notes on the feedback from other students.
“These things don’t happen in Utah,” one woman said. “Maybe her family didn’t know the rule against drinking,” another one said. “How could they not know? Everyone in Utah knows that you can’t drink!”
Finally, someone broke the rules and said, “Let’s ask the only Mormon in the room.”
“I thought if you lived in Utah you couldn’t drink, so how could your family drink?” someone asked.
There are more than two-and-a-half million people in Utah. Just over half of them are Mormons. And of that group, not all of them are walk-the-line, churchgoing, and church-loving members. And like all people, Mormons have choices. Not all of those choices line up with church doctrine.
“I have a question,” one classmate said. “Why do Mormons carry dirty Bibles? I mean can’t they afford new ones?”
Now there’s one I haven’t been asked before. “What do you mean dirty Bibles?” I asked.
“Well, it’s like they’re all worn out. They have writing in them and sometimes the pages are falling out, and they are never crisp and clean like most Bibles.”
“I guess that’s because we use them,” I said. “We read and study them. When we learn something new or want to cross reference one scripture with another, we write notes in the margins. We don’t leave them on our coffee tables like family heirlooms. I guess that’s why they look dirty.”
Over the years, I’ve read countless articles analyzing everything from the church’s wealth to the existence of a Mormon Mafia. I’ve been questioned about polygamy, and repeatedly asked about my Sabbath Day observance. But I never imagined I would watch a fresh-faced LDS missionary sing about my religion on the Tony Awards while everyone in the audience laughed.
Are we that funny or that peculiar? My life seems pretty close to the kind of lives my non-Mormon friends live. There are exceptions, of course, like my three-hours of church meetings on Sunday, my dog-eared scriptures, my teetotaler ways, the 10 percent of our income we give to the church to help build new churches and temples, and to help provide humanitarian relief to about 170 countries around the world.
But overall, I feel pretty normal.
The Mormon faith can’t be that weird if people keep joining the church, right? In 181 years since the church began, our numbers have never decreased. We started out with six members, and today there are about 14 million.
Maybe all 14 million of us are brainwashed but I’m a reasonably intelligent woman and I honestly don’t think that’s the case.
And, I can’t deny that being a Mormon makes me a better person.
I’m sure every religion seems weird to somebody.
Am I going too far to say that it seems a little weird to smear ashes on your forehead and leave them there all day?
Yes, on the surface that seems a little weird, but I respect my Catholic friends that do it because it’s meaningful to them.
Every religion has something that appears different or weird. I’m sure people thought Noah was pretty weird when he went around warning people about a flood that would cover the entire earth.
In Lawrence’s book he asked, “Why don’t people know beans about us? Because we members have not told them in words they understand.”
He recommends we cut the jargon when sharing what we believe.
Whether it’s semantics or substance, we obviously need to do a better job of showing who we are and what we believe.
So maybe we will always have to deal with the yellow sticky notes that get stuck on our foreheads, and just stay amused by the flurry of media that can never stop trying to figure us out.
But in the meantime, maybe we need to come up with a new Mormon vocabulary to help us clearly explain ourselves to a curious world. Or maybe there’s another Broadway musical that needs to be written.
(This was an article I had published in the Deseret News http://desne.ws/qr5awt)
Genealogy has gone prime time.
That was the message at the Conference on Family History and Genealogy held at Brigham Young University last week.
Television programs like NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are,” BYU-TV’s “The Generation Project,” and “Faces of America” on PBS have piqued the interest of viewers around the world and motivated more people to research their family histories and heritage.
D. Joshua Taylor, a nationally recognized genealogical author, lecturer, and researcher spoke at the conference and talked about the future of genealogy, saying, “it will not longer be viewed as an ‘old’ activity for the retired. It will be undefined by age, gender and nationality. We’re in primetime now.”
Taylor looked at his first microfilm when he was 10 years old, and became instantly hooked on genealogy. He is the director of education and programs at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, and has assisted with research for the NBC Series “Who Do You Think You Are,” including helping Sarah Jessica Parker with her genealogy.
At the conference, he traced genealogy through the generations, and discussed how it has changed and evolved over the years.
“We started out with people writing letters, going to courthouses, and lineage organizations for genealogical research, then we moved to microfilm, which brought thousands, millions of records to people. After Alex Haley’s “Roots”book and television series, people became more interested in tracing their families. It became more visible and the word ‘genealogist’ became known. Then we moved to digital records like on familysearch.org and ancestry.com,” Taylor said.
Photo taken by Lisa Poole, NBC
Sarah Jessica Parker on an episode of NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are.”
The attributes of the next generation of genealogy may sound “absolutely bananas,” but they will happen, he said. He predicted some of the following changes:
We won’t have to type in genealogical data from census and other records, we will just drag and drop everything, and the computer will fill in all the details. “It’s happening now with medical records,” he said, “why not with genealogy?”
Everything will be interactive. For example, you’ll click on a church, and then click on a pew with a name of a family. Then all the information about that family will pop up. With the push of a button, you’ll see all their data.
There will be more online websites for digital scrapbooks and family histories. There will be blogs with live recordings, videos, and links to other pertinent information.
We will see the end of paper. No more carting boxes of family documents from one relative to the next. Everything will be digital. It’s all about “the cloud,” and storing data in Apple’s new icloud that should be coming out soon or “dropbox.com” where you can access your data from any computer and you won’t have to worry about external drives, back-up CDs, and thumb drives.
Genealogy will be more about people than facts. He encouraged genealogists to think beyond the pedigree chart and get into the stories about people.
Communities will share data. Genealogists, historians, librarians, archivists, and medical professionals will share information. “We all need the same stuff,” he said, “so we might as well share it with each other.”
Mobile devices are the future. They will replace computers because they are more portable and can perform more functions.
There will be more instant communications, not just with family members working together on genealogy, but with librarians, county clerks, associations, etc. In fact, he said, the new plus.google.com could be the end of Facebook because of its increased functionality, group video chats and “circles” of friends that can be organized by families, research groups, etc.
Genealogy will not have to be a full-time pursuit. The younger generations will be able to devote just 15-minutes at a time and make progress because of new technology and collaborative methods.
There will be a new generation of genealogists that will take new tactics. Taylor described a Boston University group of students assembled to work on their family histories and said there were 20 countries represented within just three generations of a family. Fifty percent of their parents or grandparents were born outside the United States. The average birth year of this new group of genealogists was 1989. About 85 percent of them immigrated after the year 1900, with the most recent immigrants coming to America in 2000. With this new generation, new approaches need to be taken like oral interviews, and tracing people who are still alive to find out why they came to America and what political movements affected them.
The Conference on Family History and Genealogy is held at BYU and is sponsored by the BYU History Department, BYU Center for Family History and Genealogy, FamilySearch, Family History Library, and BYU Division of Continuing Education.
I remember the day I heard former LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley say, “ Things have a way of working out.”
It reminded me of my favorite quote, “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
Isn’t that the essence of faith?
I recently spent a week in Utah with my family and had proof that President Hinckley was right.
My proof was undeniable, irrefutable, gorgeous, and soul satisfying.
Sometimes we get stuck in life’s dark tunnels and have to grope our way around until we find a tiny, hopeful sliver of light.
But eventually, the sun bursts out in all its magnificence and almost mockingly seems to say, “See, I told you so!”
Almost 25 years ago, after only about 18-months of being married to her high school sweetheart, my sister’s marriage abruptly ended. She discovered her husband wasn’t the man she man she thought she married.
She boldly forgave him for breaking their marriage vows, and told him she wanted the marriage to work. He said he wasn’t ready for the responsibility of marriage. And since one person cannot make a marriage succeed, they separated.
He had been part of our family for years so we were all heartbroken.
Just after they decided to separate, she found out she was pregnant…
She hoped he would step up and take on the responsibility of a being a husband and a father.
So she moved in with our parents, and took on the new life and title of “single mother.”
She lived at home until she could afford to move out on her own.
She enrolled in college, took on every kind of part-time job imaginable to pay rent, buy groceries, diapers, and formula for two growing babies. (I remember when she buckled them in their car seats, and took them with her to deliver Chinese food at lunchtime.)
She graduated from college, and eventually ended up working for the State of Utah as a case worker, helping women just like her.
For all those years, she dreamed of owning her own home. Every time I visited her, we drove through neighborhoods trying to find a home she could afford. But with the costs of raising two kids alone, owning a home was impossible.
But, on my last trip home, I sat in her beautiful home, one that is better in every way than any of the homes she thought she could afford.
It is in a neighborhood and a town she loves, and it fits her lifestyle perfectly.
Even better than owning her own home, she has two responsible, wonderful grown children that she raised to be respectable, loveable, happy, amazing adults. (One of them is serving a LDS mission in Uruguay. The other completed a mission in Africa and is now working, and going to college.)
As a single mom, she spent more than her share of time in the dark-tunnel part of life, eking out a living, and balancing motherhood with a full-time job.
As I sat in her living room a few weeks ago, I felt like she is proof that President Hinckley was right.
Things have a way of working out.
(I saw this video and sent it to her as my tribute to her as my hero and super woman.)
Second Proof (Shared with my brother’s permission.)
The next bit of proof came on that same trip when I visited my younger brother at my mom’s house.
He was mowing her lawn. He turned off the mower, and said, “Guess what I did today? I bought a cell phone.”
I gave him a high-five and said, “That is amazing!”
And, “amazing” hardly captures the miracle that phone symbolizes.
About three years ago, after years of drug abuse, he became homeless — literally without a place to sleep, shower, or make a meal. With no alternative, my distraught mom told him if he became sober and never used again, he could live with her until he could rebuild his life.
With no other options, he agreed to her terms, and moved in with only the clothes on his back.
Having a cell phone means he’s inching his way back to being a man who actually owns something.
Three years ago I was certain he would die under a culvert or end up in jail.
In June of 2011, he called me on his cell phone. He is alive, healthy, and starting to accumulate things again. He is a happy, contributing member of our family. He has goals, dreams, and plans again.
Things have a way of working out.
I have beautiful, deeply reassuring proof all around me – proof that sits at the base of the Wasatch Mountains in the form of a perfect red brick home, and proof symbolized by a simple cell phone.
Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end. And if you can just hang on long enough, I promise you’ll have proof.