Monday, September 17, 2012

The Voice of My Ancestors: a reflection on faith, religion, and the new paradigm of being a good, obedient daughter

A view from the Salt Lake City Cemetery of the mountains that rim the valley. All of my ancestors are buried here.

My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, most of my family are Mormon . Many of them are practicing Mormons. A few are known as “Jack Mormons” because they rarely go to church, smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol. I was born in to the church, a child of pioneers who risked their lives for their faith. Taking on the arduous commitment to travel west across an ocean, the Great Lakes, prairie and mountains in 1848, a six month journey. Their former lives reduced to a few possessions stuffed into crates and trunks and loaded onto covered wagons. 

 I loved the Church. I am enthralled by stories of my ancestors. I remember the exhilaration I felt climbing the mountain trail and arriving at the statue that marks the spot where Brigham Young announced, “This is the place.” The story told is reminiscent of Moses pointing the way to the Promised Land; a place of milk and honey, of blessing and a new life. The Church of the Latter Day Saints of Jesus Christ taught me that we/they are the reunification of the lost tribes of Israel in the high desert of Utah – “God’s Chosen” people. 

Brigham Young, as I recall the story from my childhood, stood on that mountain pass and looked out across the verdant mountains that crown the great Salt Lake valley and knew he had led his flock to the place God was calling them. He did not know that the Great Salt Lake was an almost useless body of salt water. It could not water their crops nor provide them with water for living. All of their water supply had to come from the spring run-off of melting mountain snow. A plague of grasshoppers nearly ruined the first year’s crop. Seagulls arrived, an answer to prayer, ate the grasshoppers thus saving enough food to survive the winter.  It took a few years of grueling work to build up provisions and establish a vital community. As a child I would look from the mountain side upon which I lived across the valley and feel the potency of that hard work displayed in city lights and the glistening temple. My heart swelled with pride, I was part of this. Through my family, I helped build it, this beautiful city. 

 Of course, it was all I knew, the story of my church and my ancestors. But it was what I knew. I knew it and loved it enough to go to church on my own and invest my life in it. Regardless of what you may thing of the teachings of the Mormon Church I was baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit – and I was taught that I as a Mormon I was also Christian. Mormons have their own version of apocalyptic Old Testament- twelve tribes of Israel- teaching in the Book of Mormon, but they embrace the Bible and Jesus too. 

My father worked long hours, my mother was weighed down with parenting and depression, not always fully functioning. I walked myself from our tiny house on Elizabeth Street
My mother, brothers, and I lived in a basement apartment of this tiny house following her divorce from my father

 to the local Mormon church, the neighborhood ward (somewhere around 4th  South and 11th East), and went to church. “Primary,” the Tuesday school for children, taught me stories of Mormon hardship grounded in an effort to live faithfully that mirrored my own and gave me hope. Hard work and strong faith and I too would persevere and all would be okay. Those teachings sustained me through my parents’ divorce when I was five, my mother’s prolonged struggle with mental illness, addiction to Valium, several years where she spent every day in bed and I took over as the mother of my three younger brothers, an alcoholic father who was absent more than present, physical abuse of my younger brothers when my parents decided that beating them was appropriate discipline, psychological abuse for me as I hid in my closet to avoid the cries of my brothers for whom I felt helpless and incapable of rising up against my father to protect my brothers. The teachings of the church gave me hope even as they reinforced my submissive behavior to my parents. I was to be, always, the good obedient daughter, the silent caretaker.

In time my mother went cold-turkey and got off the Valium and became a slightly more high-functioning mother. She continued to have long periods of depression when she was bed-ridden, but overall she was better. The beating stopped and discipline became more appropriate, although for my brothers the damage was done. For me too, I think. I have a low tolerance for abuse of any kind and a perpetual feeling of helplessness in the face of criticism, violence, bad behavior of others, and addiction, which is reinforced every time I try to respond and fail. My education has taught me that this failure is less about me - I know what a healthy response is - and more about others who cannot rise to the healthy behavior. Somehow I thought that if I employed appropriate behavior the outcome would change. Occasionally that is true. Mostly it just means that I end up feeling vulnerable as I employ healthy responses and behavior and boundaries resulting in a need to then manage feelings of anxiety. Being healthy does not always make one look like the good girl, the obedient daughter. Often it is the opposite. One looks like the bad one, the outspoken, inappropriate one as a system pushes back to sustain its version of homeostasis. I can only change me and manage my behavior, I cannot manage others. 

The climate of American society today – political and religious – is stirring me up. I feel an almost constant undercurrent of anxiety within me. It hums just beneath the surface. It keeps me on edge. I pray, exercise, meditate,  practice yoga, and meet regularly with a spiritual director in an effort to both be aware of this agitation and conscious of the “what” and “why” of it. I get it, I understand it. Nonetheless it is still present. All of the time. 

The agitation is fueled because this is an election year, and much is at stake. It is fueled because once again I am in a church where anxiety is present but my relationship with the congregation is too new, too young, to be fully trusted.  It’s a time of testing and growth and deepening understanding. It’s the dynamic of a second year at the parish. 

The agitation is fueled because I am feeling called to be more authentic, to use my voice, to speak about the issues that concern me. Sometimes this part of my voice filters into my sermons. An article from the Alban Institute on “Preaching Ethically, Preaching Your Perspective” by Ronald D. Sisk addresses this growing edge as I am experiencing it in me and my preaching voice:

“Transparency in preaching requires ongoing personal effort both to know yourself well and to remain objective about how who you are informs your preaching. One might say that the conversation is between distance and intimacy. You must remain intimately aware of the influences that shape you and at the same time be able to evaluate those influences honestly. You must know yourself well enough to be able to testify how you have responded to those formative influences. An ethical preacher first honestly and unashamedly preaches her own perspective.” [i]

I am working to find that ethical voice that preaches appropriately from my perspective. Honed by years of work with a therapist and also with a Spiritual Director, I am very clear about the influences that shape me and can evaluate them honestly. My voice is influenced by the faith of my ancestors, their willingness to struggle and work hard to live a life of faith. That is my legacy, my heritage, and the reality of my life too. My voice is influenced by the upheaval of the 1960’s and 1970’s, the assassinations of JFK, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.,  the Regan years, Bush and Clinton, and Obama, the tea party and the war on women, the empowerment of LGBT people. My voice is impacted my effort to embrace all human beings as equally created and loved by God for being exactly who we are, made in God’s image. I believe that. The Gospel I preach is always: We are made in God’s image, made good to do good. Therefore we are to love God, love self (be authentic), and love others. Always. Just as we are. And then from that love, we are being transformed into that which God is calling us to be.  And, it is not easy. Loving with integrity is always more transformational than a warm-fuzzy feel good.

The Mormon Church did not teach me that Gospel directly. I learned it in opposition to the teachings of the church, in opposition to the teachings of “God’s Chosen.” In opposition to teachings that narrowly define how one acquires salvation.  I’ve come to realize that many world religions and many branches of Christianity believe they are “God’s Chosen.’ Mormon’s are not unique in this. Mormonism is just my experience of it.  

Throughout my life as a priest in the Episcopal Church I have been clear about my experience of the Mormon Church, how the teachings formed me early on and how the Episcopal Church has opened up my response to those teachings, giving them life and breadth and giving me enough hope to remain a Christian.
The agitation that flows beneath the surface of my being is fueled in part by this year’s general election for a President of the United States. There is much at stake for women and all people who are not, by an accident of birth, a white male. As a priest I walk a fine line when I reflect on politics, and yet I feel that religious leaders must speak, honestly and with integrity, about our understanding of life, faith, religion and politics. For me, this level of authenticity, in a climate of anxiety, pushes the paradigm of “good, obedient daughter” fueling that agitating hum. The make-nice, be an obedient good girl paradigm is challenged. I speak my peace through the lens of my faith informed by my life, I strive to be honest and respect the dignity for all. I try to not slip into name-calling or inverting the bad behavior imposed by one group and turning it onto another. I try to rise above the fray and yet speak honestly.  It is my ethical duty as a priest to do this; any other voice would not be authentic, honest, or grounded in the Gospel. 

This comes with a price. Transformation always comes with a price. The good girl paradigm is being transformed into a new understanding. It begins by re-framing the answer to the question,” What does it mean to be a good, obedient daughter?” That new answer is being formed in me.  It is a conversation I am having internally as I think, pray, reflect, and write about the agitating hum. It is also a conversation that finds its way into my preaching as I test this voice and learn its growing edges, limitations, and strengths.  This conversation within and without of me is a kind of “homiletical ethics” approach to discerning and preaching. Duke Divinity School ethicist Stanley Hauerwas talks about ethics as character, one’s dominant approach to the challenges of life.[ii]
I live at risk of giving into the threat the hum poses and silencing the voice. Most days I tell myself that the agitating hum will dissipate as I learn to articulate and trust this voice rising within me.  In my heart I know that the only way for me to really find the peace I yearn for is follow the Spirit’s lead. This means, learning to speak from my heart and mind - trusting that "voice" - must be my dominant approach to life. It’s a question of ethics, of learning to be as authentic as I can to the person God is calling me to be.  Surely that too is being a good, obedient daughter – just not a submissive, passive, silent one hiding her true voice in the closet.

[ii] ibid


Sherry Peyton said...

Your willingness to speak so honestly is breathtaking. You are everything it should mean to be priest and human being. You are so heartbreakingly open about your life that you probably don't realize what a impact you have on everyone who reads it. We all share the same fears and pain, to a lessor or greater degree. The themes are the same, the details vary. Your openness gives legitimacy to others stories. Thank you Terri for being who you are. Your congregation is most lucky to have you. I wish beyond words that I could find a spiritual director here but alas I seem not to even find a woman's religious congregation here. Thank you again for your story.

Purple said...

What Sherry said...thanks for writing and sharing this.

Robin said...

Multiple dittos.

First, what a powerful story of formation.

Second, I, too, am struggling in this second year of pastoring and this election year, to develop a voice that is both authentically mine and gracious to those who hear things very differently than I do.

My spiritual director last month urged me to try to live the words Open. Receive. Accept. My daughter unwittingly added a fourth: Embrace. And now you have added: Be authentic.

What a set of assignments we have!

Robin said...

And Sherry, I looked at your blog. It seems that they are a considerable distance from you, but what about Ghost Ranch or Pecos Monastery as sources for spiritual directors?

Mary Beth said...

Thank you for writing, and for being so open about your struggle. I, too, feel the hum and the constant dis-ease it brings.

What a gift your Mormon background brings.

Blessings on your way.

Rev Dr Mom said...

Wow. This is powerful stuff and even though our back stories are very different, there is much here that resonates with me. Thank you for sharing your struggles and your voice as we walk this journey.

Lisa :-] said...

I love reading posts by women around my age who are coming to the place called Wisdom, by way of seeing and embracing all that we are...and realizing that not only are we not "done" yet, our best most Authentic selves are just beginning to emerge. Thank you for sharing this, Terri.

Nancy said...

Thank you Terri.

Powerful and authentic.

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