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Friday, October 10, 2014

Death Be Not Dignified, and Maybe That's Okay

My Facebook feed is filling up with likes for a CNN story about a woman with terminal brain cancer who has chosen to "die with dignity." She has set a date to take a prescription that will end her life before the cancer can.

Her story is touching. She is newly married, she loves to travel, she wants a family. All of these have been cut short by cancer, along with every other dream she had for her life. It's the cruelest of blows.

But she is fighting back. Not only is she getting the upper hand on death by choosing her own date to die, she's also fighting for every American to have this right. Right now only five states have Death with Dignity laws allowing doctors to prescribe life-ending meds for the terminally ill. She wants every state to have similar laws.

I have to admire her for using the little time she has left to spread a message she believes will help others.

But I don't agree with her.

I spent ten months watching my aunt die of ovarian cancer. Here's what I know about that kind of death: there is no dignity in it. None.

The hair and appetite loss were nothing compared to the pain no meds could soothe. I spent days with her where she spoke broken words through gritted teeth, fighting to sit upright. Her once round body morphed into a skeleton with loose flesh and dry, scaly chemo hands. Thoughts escaped her like wind-blown dandelion fluff. Always within reach, but never close enough to grasp.

Toward the end, she spent as many days in the hospital as out of it, until finally, she came home to die. I went to visit her on one of those last days before hospice came; a day when she writhed in pain and clenched my hand and her sister's hand, waiting for the searing in her nerves to stop. To hold her hand or rub her arm only caused more pain. Even to touch her hurt. Three of us had to help her to the bathroom, a ten second walk that stretched to ten minutes.

That was the worst day. But even then, she managed to smile when I said something funny.

I went back a few days later. Hospice had come, morphine was being administered, and a hospital bed occupied a corner of the family room. After the pain she'd been in the last time I'd seen her, I expected to see her in bed. Instead, she was sitting on the couch looking more alive than she'd been in weeks. Looking almost alive enough to cut through the air of waiting that hung heavy in the room. Waiting for someone to die is as painful as watching it.

She couldn't talk. The level of morphine it took to keep her comfortable also kept her too high to communicate rationally. She waved me over and held out her small, frail hands. I don't remember the color--orange or pink--but her fingernails were painted. Her fingernails were always painted.

I took her hands and she pulled herself up. I thought she wanted help somewhere, but instead she pulled me into her arms. I could feel every vertebrae in her back and there was no cushion left on her shoulders, but there was strength in that embrace.

And love.

And gratitude.

And every word her heart held that her mouth couldn't say.

Let's be honest, suffering and pain suck. No one wants it. Not for ourselves, and especially not for our loved ones. But what would life be without it?  What happens when we, as a people, decide life is only worthwhile if we can avoid suffering rather than learn from it.

I'm a firm believer in the value of paradoxes. Without pain, how do we know pleasure? Without evil, how can there be good? Without doubt, is there any need for faith?

And without suffering, how do we learn compassion?

How did Mother Theresa become Mother Theresa? How did she develop the kind of compassion it took for her to spend her life ministering to others? She surrounded herself with suffering. She didn't sit in a church talking about what to do for the sick, the poor, the destitute, the dying. She surrounded herself with them.

We don't  have to be Mother Theresa to learn compassion, and I'm not advocating for unnecessary suffering.  But I worry about the implications of making dignity the most important part of death. I worry about what lessons we miss learning if we're not willing to see the journey to death all the way through--when we cut it short before it gets too hard. Determining a date to die is a lot easier than determining whether we're finished doing all the good we may do.

If my aunt had cut her journey short--cut it off before she needed hospice or before she became a "burden" to her loved ones, I would have missed the greatest lessons she had to teach me. I can feel greater sympathy for this young woman and her family because I know what lies ahead for her and them. I haven't suffered the physical pain, but I know the heartache. I've felt that. I still feel it. And I'm a better person because of it. But it took the hardest part of her journey to teach me those things.

My aunt's death was long. It was painful. It broke my heart. But, oh, how grateful I am that I got to take that walk with her.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Dear New York Times

Guess who made headlines in the New York Times...


I mean, not me specifically, but Mormon women did. I happen to be one of those, so of course I had to read these articles published back to back last week. Missions signal a Growing Role for Mormon Women and this one Mormon Women Flood of Requests.

The problem with writing about a religion is that if you are a practitioner of a particular faith it's hard to report without bias or to be seen as credible even at your most unbiased. On the other hand, if you're an outsider to a religion you're reporting on a culture you're not a part of, using a language you don't speak. Every religion has it's own language, but Mormonism's is particularly hard to understand because we use a lot of familiar terms but define them differently than other Christian faiths. (Hence the cry of "you're not Christian" you just heard from some Christians who may stumble upon this little blog).

For the most part the co-writers of both these articles did a fairly good job of speaking our language, they got some things wrong. Usually that doesn't bug me, but since their articles devolved from an interesting discussion about how the rise in women missionaries is changing the face of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, into a story about a small contingent among millions of Mormons who would like to see women ordained to the priesthood, I feel like a little interpretation is in order.  (To be clear, my interpretation = my interpretation and understanding of Church doctrine through years of study and prayer on this topic. It is in no way official).

Please don't get me wrong. I am not being critical of the woman who are calling for ordination. I'm frustrated by the way their fight for what they see as greater power and authority diminishes the power and authority women already have. But while I don't support their cause, I fully support them in their right to ask, even demand, what they see as a necessary step toward equality within the Church. My understanding of the priesthood doesn't make me think they will be successful in their fight for ordination, but I empathize with their need to fight for it nonetheless. They are bringing to light changes that can, and should, be made so that men and women more fully realize the power in the priesthood as they use it together.

But back to the articles themselves and some problems with them. Let's start with this quote:
To revise female roles in the church threatens what many see as the very foundations of the faith, which dictate that men are ordained as priests at the tender age of 18, taking the title “Elder,” while women, who can never progress beyond “Sister,” are considered holiest and most fulfilled as wives and mothers.

The "foundations of the faith" they're referring to, I suppose, are our beliefs and practices regarding the Priesthood. To be clear, however, our faith and church has one foundation: Jesus Christ. That's it. Everything we do goes back to our belief in His atonement and resurrection.

Of course, since Christ not only holds the Priesthood, but is the priesthood, it is an essential part of our foundation. Here's where things get tricky, though. Our definition of priesthood may closely match that of Catholics and Protestants, but our inferred meaning does not, and neither does our application of the Priesthood. The Priesthood can never be a career path for either a Mormon woman or man. No eighteen year old boy ordained an elder can choose to serve in certain positions that may move him up the ranks to President some day. The purpose of the priesthood is simply to bless the lives of others. While only men within the Mormon church are ordained to administer the priesthood, it is through the priesthood that both men and women do as Christ did: bless the lives of others.

Boys are ordained priests at the age of 16, not 18, while they still hold only the Aaronic, or lower, priesthood. Their responsibilities are pretty limited but do include the authority to bless the sacrament each Sunday and perform baptisms if asked to do so. They must be ordained as Elders before participating in the highest temple rituals (we call them ordinances), but are only called Elder while serving missions or if they are called (askED to serve--this is different from askING to serve) in the Quorum of Seventy or as an Apostle.

Do there seem to be some inequities here? On the surface, yes. But you know who can enter the temple and officiate in the same ordinances as men without being ordained to the priesthood? Women. So are there inequities in that also? Not when you stop defining equality as sameness (2 + 2 and 3 +1 both equal the same thing even though they look different, right?).

In a church whose doctrines include those of eternal progression--meaning we continue to learn and grow forever--and agency--meaning we choose how much we learn and grow-- the idea that women "can never progress beyond 'Sister'" doesn't really work. Our progress is neither dependent upon another person, nor upon any titles given. Our progress is only dependent upon ourselves and the choices we make. To progress in the Church does not mean moving up the ladder like it does in the business world. Since our clergy is a lay clergy and callings (positions we're ASKED to fill) are often based more on inspiration than ability, a secular view of progress doesn't fit the Mormon definition, whether it's applied to women or men. There's no ladder to climb in Christ's church, nor should there be.

But for those who place importance in titles, there is another one women can be known by. I am currently serving as the Young Women President in my congregation. This means I am called to be the women's leader over girls age 12-18 and, as such, I am referred to as President by my bishop (pastor of our congregation) and his two counselors, as are my female counterparts in the women's and children's organizations and my male counterpart in the young men's organization. The young women themselves, however, call me Sister, just as the young men call my counterpart, Brother. The title of president is only important to me in that it sends the message to my young women that  my responsibility to them is equal to that of the Young Men President over the boys (this is a rare instance where  sameness does translate to equality).

As for the charge that women are "considered holiest and most fulfilled as wives and mothers," consider this statement by President Harold B. Lee given in 1974 and quoted by President Howard W. Hunter twenty years later in General Priesthood Meeting which only men attend: “The most important of the Lord’s work you and I will ever do will be within the walls of our own homes.” Did they mean Mormon men should have home-based businesses? That they should find careers they advance in within their homes? No.

Our theology teaches that families are eternal, God is, literally, our Heavenly Father, and we lived with him before coming to earth. Since God is giving mothers and fathers responsibility for His children and we will have to report back to Him about how we fulfilled this responsibility, is there anything more holy or more fulfilling (or frustrating) for a man or woman than marriage and children? I have never heard any Church leader ever say that a man will be more fulfilled by remaining single and pursuing worldly success rather than getting married and becoming a father.

See how reporters can miss all the context behind the syntax when they report on a culture they're not part of in a language that sounds like their own but isn't? I try to remember this every time I read about another religion.

Here's another example, and it's a biggie:

But when asked how they felt about women joining the priesthood, which would allow them to assume religious decision-making authority, Ms. Ensign and Ms. Scott shook their heads and let out nervous giggles. “I already have way too much responsibility,” Ms. Ensign said.

First of all, it's Sister Ensign and Sister Scott. If you're going to make a big deal about women only being able to hold one title in my church, you probably ought to use that one title. While I rarely call my fellow sisters, Sister, the female missionaries are always referred to as Sister. It is a title of respect that is the equivalent of Elder when referring to male missionaries. To give them a secular title like Ms. is to diminish the importance of the work they are doing for our church, which is what you're article started out about.

Secondly, let me put some context behind this often misunderstood statement, "I already have too much responsibility." And this one "I don't want to go to any more meetings." And all the other ways Mormon women say "I don't want the Priesthood" that make me crazy because they are so easily misinterpreted as statements of submissiveness.

Do you know what women can do? Everything. Do you know what Mormon women actually do? EVERYTHING. Seriously. Look around. The Mormon woman you know is the one running the PTA, or the classroom, or the book fair or whatever else at your kid's school. She's the one you work with who also puts in a lot of unpaid time at her church. She's the one who just signed the sheet that went around asking for volunteers for whatever it is. She's the one bringing you dinner tonight. She's the one you can count on to follow through when she says she'll do something.

And do you know why?

Because she knows that what she does matters, even if it's something small and unworthy of recognition. She knows that her power comes, not from someone ordaining her, but from her innate ability to influence the world for good.

Let me give you some examples of how we use that influence and how it works in conjunction with an ordained male's responsibility to administer the Priesthood.

It starts with our belief in Adam and Eve and our understanding of who Eve was; an understanding that is increased as men and women officiate in temple ordinances. In our theology, Eve is not the weaker sex who gave into temptation and thus is to blame for the world of sin every person is born into. Rather, Eve is the women who thoughtfully partook of the fruit that allows all of mankind the blessing of mortal life. She made the decision to leave the Garden of Eden in order to have children, knowing she and they would face hardships, trials, and temptations, but also knowing we need these things to progress and live with God our Heavenly Father again. She used her influence to help Adam see that eating the fruit was not only necessary, but also part of God's plan.

Original sin? We don't have that in our doctrine (check out our Article of Faith #2). Which means we also don't share a basic belief of other Christian faiths. A belief that scores of religious men have used for centuries to justify the mistreatment or subjugation of women.

Here's a more personal example of how a woman's power to influence is as important as an ordained man's responsibility to administer. When I was fourteen I attended a special youth meeting that centered around the standards of morality the Church teaches. I sat next to a friend of my mom's, Christine Funk, as the priesthood leader assigned the topic of chastity gave the infamous "a white rose touched turns brown" talk. He ended by recounting how when he got married he sent his wife's former young women leader a dozen white roses to thank her for teaching his wife this very important lesson.

I sat through that talk convinced I was that brown wilted rose because I had kissed a boy when I was twelve. I had denied my future husband the privilege of sending any of my young women leaders a dozen white roses. Even worse, I had committed a grievous sin from which there was no return because I had kissed a boy on the lips on a dare. And since it was too late, what was the point of even living the standards being taught? What kind of man would want to marry me anyway?

I can't tell you the hopelessness I felt before Chris leaned over and said to me, "I can't believe he just said that. That does not take into account the Atonement or repentance."

With those two sentences a woman who had no official "authority" over me changed the course of my life. She taught me correct doctrine by following a feeling  to say something she had no idea how much I needed to hear. Her influence had more power than the priesthood authority of Brother So and So who was fulfilling an administrative assignment in an earnest, though woefully misguided, way.

My husband has administered priesthood blessings to a number of my friends whose own husbands were either out of town when the need arose or were unworthy to do so because they'd chosen not to live up to the standards required to administer. (Meaning, just because they were ordained doesn't mean they had the authority to use their priesthood office). On one occasion he went to my friend's house to help our bishop give her and her children blessings of comfort during a very difficult time caused by the choices of her husband and their father. Within minutes he called me to come over and help. They were so distraught he had no idea what to do.

After my husband and our bishop gave the blessings, I held my friend and her children. I shared my feelings about Christ's atonement and forgiveness while they, my husband, and my bishop listened. My words and my husband's blessings couldn't fix the problems caused by another husband and father's poor choices, but they did bring comfort. Together we used the power of the priesthood to administer, to influence, to love and to bless the lives of others.

We've had other experiences like this where he has used his power to administer in conjunction with my power to influence and nurture to bless the lives of others. These opportunities have taught us the importance of not only fulfilling our separate responsibilities, but also working together to do so in order to more fully realize the power in the priesthood. If I were ordained to administer priesthood blessings, my friends would have asked me to lay my hands on their heads instead of my husband. But then how would he have served them? When would he have learned how indispensable husbands and fathers are without the opportunity to step in when other men couldn't or wouldn't live up to their responsibilities?

I could give you a hundred other examples of women using their influence to bless the lives of others without being ordained to do so. Like the first counselor in my Young Women presidency who is a vice president at an international company. She has used her power to influence for good both in the workplace and the church by changing people's perceptions of childbirth from something to fear to something to embrace. She has used her pregnancy to teach our young women to see the connection between the agony and suffering women go through to give mortal life to God's children and the agony and suffering Christ endured to provide eternal life to God's children.

Or my young women who had the courage to report the disparaging and inappropriate remarks about women a popular teacher at their high school was making, leading to his dismissal. I can give you the examples of my mother, my grandmother, my aunts, my friends, and my sisters who have had as great an influence in my life as any man ordained to the priesthood.

Women can do everything. That doesn't mean they should.

So, Ms. Reporters, when you quote a Mormon woman saying she doesn't "want the responsibility" of the Priesthood, this is the context behind it. It's not that we don't want it, it's that we already have it. It just looks different from what you, or even Mormon women themselves, think it should.

If women want to use their influence to stand in a line for a meeting, no harm can come from that. They need to be heard. Women need to be heard. More importantly, they need to embrace their power and use it.

So while I won't be standing in any lines, here's how I will embrace my power and use my influence. I will fight to change outdated conversations about chastity so that no young women who doesn't have a Chris Funk sitting next to her will feel worthless. I'll fight to change conversations about modesty so the words "modest is hottest" are never used and reverence, love and respect for our bodies is emphasized. I'll teach girls the need for education and careers along with the divinity of marriage and motherhood. I'll do whatever it takes for women to recognize and be recognized for the miracles we perform every single day just by being women.

And if some day our living prophet receives a revelation that women should be ordained, I'll step up and do what's asked of me. Just please don't call me to be the financial clerk. I watched my husband muddle his way through that calling for three and half years and. . .

 I really don't want that responsibility.