Saturday, October 18, 2014

DON'T PANIC! The Ebola Risk Is Not All It's Cracked Up To Be!

In case you hadn't heard, ebola panic has swept the United States. Note that I say ebola panic and not the disease itself. The latest is that a Texas nurse flew to Cleveland and may or may not have been contagious. The news is broadcasting stories of impending death and destruction almost non-stop and rumor has it a new ebola vaccine might be rushed out to deal with the "emergency".

Now is a time to take a page from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Grab a towel and don't panic. OK, you don't have to grab a towel.

Here is why everyone needs to calm down about ebola:


  • The possibility for spread to the United States has been there for almost 40 years. Ebola was first reported in 1976 and has had several reoccurrences since then, including one in 1995, which was the first most Americans heard of it. There were chances for it to spread to the US 20 years ago just like today. If you weren't panicking then, why panic today?
  • Ebola is not spread by casual contact. You have to come into direct contact with bodily fluids like blood, urine, semen, breast milk, through an open cut or sore or through mucous membranes to get it. So for a moment let's assume that the nurse from Texas who flew to Cleveland was, in fact, in a contagious state when she boarded the plane. Unless any of the passengers or flight attendants shared a needle with her or went for a swim in the plane's latrine, it's pretty unlikely that they would contract ebola. Eating meat from animals infected via bat bites or mourning rituals where people come into close contact with the corpse of someone who died from ebola are sources of transmission in Africa. Reusing needles in hospitals is another severe risk factor in many African hospitals as well.
  • If you work in health care, yes, you could potentially be at an increased risk for contracting the disease, but you're also at an increased risk for contracting Hepatitis B and HIV/AIDS every day too. If that hasn't been dominating your life since your career in health care started, why start fretting about ebola now? Take precautions and understand that in the extremely unlikely case you did contract ebola, you have better access to health care than many people in Africa and are far more likely to recover.
  • I think it is only fair to point out that the symptoms of ebola are very similar to those of many other diseases like meningitis. malaria and typhoid fever, all of which are infectious and continue to be a serious problem in many parts of Africa. Confirmation of actual ebola requires lab tests. Unless they are running lab tests on every single sick person in the affected areas of Liberia and Sierra Leone, some instances of other diseases may be reported as ebola and contribute to the hysteria.
Consider that often the panic and hysteria cause more problems than the disease itself. In 1976, a sick army private who was confined to quarters during basic training decided to nevertheless go on a long hike with an enormous pack in the dead of winter with his unit. He collapsed on the hike and died. He was found to be carrying the H1N1 strain of influenza, the same one said to be responsible for the 1918-1919 flu pandemic. The CDC decided that based on this one incident that another flu pandemic was coming and rushed out a vaccine. This proved to be a foolhardy decision as the new vaccine was found to carry an increased risk of Guillain-Barre Syndrome and more people died from receiving the vaccine than the actual disease itself. (The army private proved to be the only death from the pandemic that never did materialize.)

The reality is that Americans are exponentially more likely to die from heart disease, cancer, and car accidents than ebola. So if you really want to protect your health, eat more fruits and vegetables, drive carefully and stop worrying about ebola!

So let's review. In order to prevent ebola you should:
  • Not share needles with anyone. 
  • Not have sex with anyone who has been sick with ebola.
  • Not eat any meat from the African bush.
  • Not get bitten by bats from the African wilderness.
  • Not participate in funeral rituals which require you to come into direct contact with a corpse infected with ebola.
  • Observe protocols to prevent infection of all kinds if you work in health care.
I think these are all very do-able. So let's all take a deep breath and turn off the news.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Spread the Word- Only Use A Handicap Placard If You Have Someone With Mobility Challenges With You!

My husband and I never thought too much about handicap parking until we had a child with mobility challenges.

Our son has spina bifida myelomeningocele. The doctors predicted he would need a wheelchair to get around because they thought he would be mostly paralyzed below the waist. He proved them wrong and he uses a walker and does a pretty darn good job of it. He tends to move slower than most kids over long distances, but he does a really good job.

Like any other kid, he needs exercise and excitement, so we like to take him out to lots of places like zoos, parks, and museums. But we often have problems with parking.

We know that at popular family attractions there are going to be more people with disabilities. And we don't have a problem when all the parking spots are taken up people who are legitimately impaired in their mobility.

It's the families who hop out of the car without any problems that bother us.

Oh yes, we see it all the time. We're circling the parking lot looking for a space and then we see some family all bound ably out of a car parked in a handicap parking space. No assistive devices, not a shuffle or a limp on anyone. They have handicap placard so technically, there is nothing anyone can do about it. But when you take a handicap spot when you don't have anyone who is handicapped with you, you are actually hurting other people. Let me explain...

One time we were making our usual circle through the zoo parking lot trying to find a parking space and a handicap spot opened up right in the front. We were angling to turn in when another car swooped in and took it. Out hopped a woman and two children, all walking perfectly fine. My husband got out and said, "Hey! What do you think you're doing? That's a handicap spot!" The woman responded, "I have two children with me." To which my husband said, "Well so do I and one of them uses a walker!" She didn't say anything and went on inside.

I wanted to talk to her myself so once I found her inside the zoo I stopped for a chat. When I asked her why she had taken a handicap parking spot when no one in her party had a walking disability, her story changed. "The handicap placard is for me," she said, looking up at me through designer sunglasses. "What disability do you have?" I asked. "My knees are bad," she responded. This must be a very rare and curious condition since her knees were only bad enough to prevent her from walking through the parking lot but not around the zoo all day.

Another time we made our usual circuit around the parking lot and found no handicap spots and had to settle for a spot a little ways away from the zoo entrance. As my husband was getting up to the sidewalk hauling our four year old and his walker, he saw a woman who had parked in one of the handicap spots get out with her children. All were perfectly mobile. The woman had a stroller with her- perhaps this is why she felt it was imperative that she have a handicap parking spot. As my husband set our son and his walker down the woman looked up and saw him. Guilt registered on her face and she quickly looked away.

I'm not the only one either. When I was in college one of my good friends broke her foot and was on crutches for several weeks. She often encountered the same problem. The handicap spots were taken up and an individual would walk out of his or her car just fine with the handicap placard tucked neatly in their window.

And here's the other thing: As far as equipment goes, we have it easy compared to a lot of parents. On one of these outings where we couldn't find parking at the zoo, I met a mom who had a boy who was immobile. He was a placental abruption baby, and if you know anything about placental abruption, you've probably heard that most babies don't make it. Once the placenta detaches from the uterine wall, the clock is ticking and most of the time the baby isn't born quickly enough to live. But this little boy had made it. He was severely brain damaged, but he had fought to live. He had a much more involved set up than we had because of his condition. Since they entered the zoo at the same time we did, and all the handicap spots were taken, I had to wonder if they were able to find a handicap spot. I see families with kids in special strollers carrying oxygen tanks and breathing monitors, but they're still out because they want their child to experience the good things of the world.

It's ironic to me really. Most people have the ability to walk and get around without problems, but seem to consider it a curse. How awful it is that they have to walk through the parking lot to get to the entrance of a store or attraction. They strap their 4, 5 and 6 year old children in strollers so that the kids don't run around. (Note, when we have been out and about some of these children actually seem rather envious of our son. Their parents have confined them while our boy gets to go out in his walker and move around.)

So please, next time you are tempted to bemoan your fate of having to walk up to an entrance and want to use your parent's or grandparent's handicap placard to get out of it, take a moment and look up at the sky. Say a prayer of thanks to God that you can use your legs without difficulty. Then put the handicap placard back in the glove compartment and take a walk. It's good for the body and the soul.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Gospel is a Compass, Not a Map

One morning as I was waking up, this idea flashed through my head: the gospel is a compass, not a map. I've been thinking about this a lot for the past week or so as we've battled viral pneumonia and had some really low lows. Now I'm writing down some of the thoughts I've been having.

What's the difference between a compass and a map? A compass is fluid because it shows you where each direction is from wherever you're at. A map is fixed. With a map you have only one fastest path from Point A to Point B.

A lot of people see the gospel as a map showing the one fastest way to salvation and exaltation. It often consists of getting your Eagle Scout Award or Young Womanhood Recognition, going on a mission, going to college (especially at BYU), getting married in the temple, raising several children who all go on missions and get married in the temple and then becoming a temple worker /serving a service mission/ serving a high-up church calling of some kind.

There are a few problems with maps.

1) Because you see life as a fixed series of events, you begin to judge others by a very rigid standard and think it's your job to get them back on track. Here's the thing, it doesn't matter if you are someone's bishop, parent or Priest's quorum Advisor, ultimately how someone chooses to live his life is between him and God. If a young man chooses not to serve a mission, it is actually none of your business. If he is derelict in his duties, God will see to it that consequences are put in place. Same thing for not getting married in the temple, having a baby out of wedlock, getting divorced, not having children, etc. When we view life as a fixed path, we also get the pay off of thinking we are morally superior because we are adhering to "the one fixed path", which ends up in a whole lot of pridefulness: "Look at all my righteous accomplishments!" "You made such and such mistake, you are not as righteous as me!" Or alternatively, we berate ourselves because we haven't lived up to the map. The advice of your kindergarten teacher is as applicable now as it was then: Worry about yourself, forget about what everyone else is doing.

2) You miss out on a lot of great things. Let's use a metaphor and say this culturally constructed map is a trip from Provo, Utah to Salt Lake City, Utah. There's nothing wrong with a trip from Provo to Salt Lake. But if all you're thinking about is getting from Provo to Salt Lake, you could miss a whole lot of great things on the way. What about hiking Mount Timpanogos? Maybe you should get out and help a stranded motorist. Maybe you should take a detour and visit Aspen, Colorado and then resume your voyage to Salt Lake. Maybe when you get to Salt Lake you shouldn't stay there, but should hop on a plane to Honolulu or drive in an RV up to Anchorage, Alaska. Maybe Provo isn't even your starting place. Maybe you took a wrong turn and ended up in Tooele. Maybe you're starting from New York City. Maybe Salt lake isn't ultimately the right destination for you; maybe it's Los Angeles or San Francisco or Bangor, Maine or Miami, Florida or Bangkok, Thailand.

There are an infinite number of ways to live a Christlike life that serves others. If you're set on following a map, you might miss out on some great opportunities that your compass may be directing you to. Whenever I've been too rigid, I've missed out on better things and regretted it. The best decisions I've made have often been seemingly crazy things that were not a part of my plan. The only thing that is important is making it to the places you are supposed to be.

3) You mistake destination for character. A lot of people will tell you they want to make it to Salt Lake. Maybe they're in Salt Lake already or are on I-15 Northbound. But on their trip they've hit up every strip club and dog fight along the way, held up a couple of gas stations and ran over a few pedestrians. "None of that matters!" they say, "I'm headed to Salt Lake so just forget about it!" It's not your destination that defines you, it's how you travel. Compasses constantly redirect you to the right path, maps are all about just getting to a destination.

4) Life is what happens when you're planning something else... and life is often more wonderful than any map we can possibly think of. An "oops" baby, divorce, a special needs child, infertility, financial difficulties, health problems, accidents, death, natural disasters, wars and the like are rarely part of anyone's plan, but they can turn into experiences that define us for the better. A compass guides you through any terrain you might face. A map of Utah is completely irrelevant if you happen to be in Vermont or Sweden or South Africa.

Throw away the map. Get out your compass. I'll wave to you as I stumble around heading towards my trail.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Titanic vs. Apollo 13

No, it's not the latest summer disaster movie (thank goodness). Jason and I recently watched Titanic and now we are watching one of my favorite movies, Apollo 13. They're both disaster movies, but one is about people dying and the other is about people living. Take away the setting, time period, number of people and that's what the real difference comes down to.

When the HMS Titanic hit an iceberg, the captain basically gave up right then and there. They didn't have enough lifeboats and the Carpathia was four hours away with two and a half hours until the ship sank. He and everyone decided right then and there that nothing could be done. They let lifeboats sail away only partially filled because they had given up.

On the other hand, when the oxygen tanks blew on Apollo 13, the people at NASA decided right then and there to work every problem that came their way. They decided that failure simply was not an option. And in the face of mounting difficulties they kept coming up with ways to rescue three men who were in outer space and they were successful.

Imagine for a moment if the captain of the Titanic had started making some effort to problem solve. What if he had immediately mobilized evacuation efforts? What if he had evacuated all children and their mothers immediately, regardless of class? What if he had put every available crew member and passenger to work breaking up crates and wardrobes to construct as many rafts as possible for everyone else? Sure hindsight is 20/20, but there were things that could have done in the present to save more lives. How many more, no one knows for sure, but certainly more. Giving up was simply a guarantee of more death.

Maybe the difference between disaster and victory has more to do with mindset than circumstances.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Why Don't We Have Any Great LDS Directors?

Note: I am going to say a lot of controversial things in this post. Perhaps the most controversial will be this: Discussions of George Lucas as a great movie director are only relevant when considering "Star Wars: A New Hope" as that is the only landmark picture Lucas has ever directed. The prequels definitely do NOT count. "The Empire Strikes Back", "Return of the Jedi" and the Indiana Jones movies were all directed by other people, so they don't count either. Star Wars fans, have at me.

Also Note: Much of what I'm about to say applies to other artistic endeavors as well, like music, acting, painting/drawing, etc. This could explain why there are so many LDS American Idol contestants who go nowhere after the show is over.

My husband has started a fascinating morning routine. He's been checking out big coffee table books on how great movies have been made and he reads them every morning at breakfast. First it was  Pixar Story, then the collective works of Steven Spielberg, then the Dark Knight trilogy, now it's Indiana Jones. And an interesting thing has happened: I have the answer to the question of why there are no Great LDS directors. If you're interested, keep reading.

In General...

I don't think I can fully discuss how this relates to Latter Day Saints without a few words on more general factors. What does it take to be a successful director in Hollywood?

  • Tenacity- A little known fact about success is that in its early stages it often looks like catastrophe. Not just failure; catastrophe. Jaws was so far over budget and over schedule that rumors were flying that Steven Spielberg would never work as a director ever again. A New Hope was over budget, over schedule and panned by executives and critics before it even premiered. During filming Lucas checked into the emergency room with chest pains. The experience was so stressful he vowed to never direct again once ANH was done. John Lasseter and company spent over a decade desperately holding their little team called Pixar together while honing their craft in hopes that they would eventually be able to realize their dream of creating a full-length CGI animated feature. Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles, suffered a major blow when his first full length animated movie directing debut The Iron Giant flopped. He had a wife and three kids and was struggling with the decision of whether to call it quits on his dream when he was brought on Pixar's team. To make it you have to have the persistence to keep doing what your gut tells you is right.
  • Blood, sweat and tears- To make something really great you have to be willing to bleed. Most great movies are born out of adversity, painful experiences, stressful shooting and nervous breakdowns. Shooting Schindler's List was a 90 day breakdown for Spielberg. Toy Story 2  was a frenzied labor of love as Pixar rushed to scrap all the previous work that Disney had commissioned on the movie and put an amazing one together in half the time normally allowed for an animated feature. If you're not suffering, you're not creating.
  • An extremely supportive family- There is often this perception that Hollywood is a graveyard of broken dreams- and broken marriages and families. While there are those in the business who have racked up a series of relationships rivaling Liz Taylor's numbers, many extremely successful directors have relied heavily on their spouses and children for their success. Steven Spielberg's wife and children moved with him to Poland for the entire three months of shooting Schindler's List. Spielberg credits his wife Kate Capshaw and his oldest stepdaughter with getting him through the wrenching production. Dark Knight trilogy director Christopher Nolan has collaborated with his wife Emma Thomas from the start of his career. She has produced all his movies, including his first short films from their student days. While making the  Dark Knight movies, Nolan kept his office at home in the garage. Peter Jackson (LOTR) co-writes his movies with his wife Fran. Interestingly, Judd Apatow, the creator of many raunchy guy comedies, co-writes all his movies with his wife and then they check with their daughters to see if they want to be involved as well. Most artistic jobs are not something you can clock in and clock out of, so having a family that is willing to be involved through the process is a necessity for maintaining a work-life balance.

But Why No Latter Day Saints?

So it's difficult to be a great director anyway. But why haven't any Latter Day Saints done it? Well, there are a few things about Mormon culture that I believe are holding many people back...

The Creative Feedback Loop

You're gonna hate this, but here it comes... as a culture, we Mormons are not very creative. Creativity requires asking a lot of questions. As a culture we are very afraid of asking questions because we think it will shake our testimonies. Instead, we write make media that asks few questions of our lives and culture and then when people say it isn't art we just claim they aren't spiritually enlightened enough to see how artistic it is. And so the self-congratulatory loop goes around and around. Comfortable, yes, but challenging, no. I don't think we should ever be afraid to ask questions or admit that we don't know or are uncertain about something. That's what faith is for. I find that the more questions I ask, the stronger my testimony becomes.

What Makes A Good Movie?

We have a tendency as a culture to define a "good" movie by what it doesn't have in it; sex, drugs, violence, nudity, etc. Often, we will look past what a book or movie teaches as long as it doesn't have certain elements in the story. Take Twilight for example. Often praised because Bella and Edward wait to have sex until they are married, the Twilight books teach that a man is really only worthy of a woman if he has a lot of money, good looks or status. Men who treat women respectfully and become good friends with them are not really relationship material in the world of vampires and werewolves. (For an example of a supposedly pro-Christian marriage movie that teaches a horrendous set of morals, see my post on Fireproof.) Many movies that are devoid of sexual content, nudity, violence or drug use are nonetheless lacking in a deep discussion of ethics and values and keep to shallow, pat answers to deal with conflict. If we continue to define the worth of a movie by the things it doesn't have, we will continue to miss the mark in creating meaningful narratives.

Another phenomenon I've observed amongst Latter Day Saints is to automatically qualify anything that has "Church" subject matter as art. As long as a movie, book, song, or even a viral video has a Mormon theme, it is thought to be superior to all other kinds of media. I sometimes feel like Latter Day Saints use gospel themes as a way to hide from exploring other more challenging questions and themes in their work.

Mormon vs. Human Narratives

Another problem with Mormons in cinema is that as a whole we are uncomfortable with stories about the human experience. Most of the stories coming from LDS filmmakers are about the Mormon cultural experience rather than dealing with shared feelings and experiences of people not of our faith. Could this be because many of us see ourselves first as Mormons (members of a particular cultural group) first and as people second? Though it's not the most well-written TV show, I give props to the creators of BYU TV's Granite Flats  for going down this road and attempting to tell stories that don't have to be expressly about the Mormon experience. In order to create movies (and other media) that appeal to people outside of the Mormon movie crowd, we are going to have to start using the gospel as a jumping off point to connect with those outside of the Church instead of seeing it as something that sets us apart from others.

This is not to say that we shouldn't make movies that deal with Latter Day Saint characters or stories. In fact, I believe that we need more great stories about Latter Day Saints that can appeal to mainstream audiences. But we need to find the common ground that our experience as Latter Day Saints share with others. The gospel of Jesus Christ should be a bridge, not a barrier, in relating to others. I think The Other Side of Heaven actually did a good job of this. This was a movie that had an LDS protagonist but wasn't about being Mormon, but rather the love that one man developed for a different culture through serving it people.

Sharing the Gospel?

Many Latter Day Saints have taken the counsel of prophets to share the gospel through the arts to mean that work by LDS artists should revolve around telling everyone why they should become Mormon. This is missing the mark. Some of the most deplorable people I have met in my life have been active Mormons. Being a disciple of Christ means living a Christlike life and sharing the gospel means telling stories that inspire to live Christlike lives that exemplify faith, hope, charity, gratitude, forgiveness and courage. This doesn't have to involve getting baptized. Schindler's List is a movie about charity and courage. The Star Wars trilogy is about recognizing the dark side within ourselves and choosing to live a life of honor and righteousness. About Time is about living each day in gratitude for the blessings we have. The King's Speech is about having the courage to confront your fears and reach for something better. The Dark Knight trilogy is about sacrifice, patriotism and service. Most people aren't Mormons and they may not be ready to get baptized, but most people are actually hungry for gospel centered narratives.

Discomfort with "Hollywood"

Ah, yes. The convenient scapegoat. Who is responsible for teen pregnancy, drug use, a climbing divorce rate, pornography, eating disorders and overcrowded prisons? It's not us parents. If we teach our children that they are never good enough for our approval, never talk to them bout sex, abuse our children or allow others to abuse them, we can't be held responsible for the consequences. Heavens, no, it's Hollywood that messed up our kids! I grant you, there are plenty of movies that come out that preach moral degradation or trivialize sin, but here is what Hollywood really is: a collection of every day people who are in the business of selling stories. That's it. They're interested in getting a movie to sell, and that doesn't always mean sex, violence or raunchiness, because a lot of movies that have these elements still don't sell. We like to think of Hollywood as a secret combination or the kingdom of the devil, but they're really just a bunch of professional storytellers. There are plenty of secret combinations going on within our own membership to worry about. 

Discomfort with Artistic Careers

If a Latter Day Saint says that he/she wants to be a great movie director, what this young person likely hear? "Go make movies for the Church!" Every time some teenager reaches a small amount of youtube success with a Mormon based video, I hear the creator say, "I'm going to make movies for the Church because that is how I will use my talents to serve God!" The Church needs people to help it make films now more than ever, but that isn't the only virtuous way to make a living in the arts. Unfortunately, many of our membership are very uncomfortable with the idea of careers in the arts. The idea of pursuing a career that could put you in the public eye and <gasp!> even make a lot of money without professional school seems almost scandalous to some members I've met. Amongst many bishops and priesthood brethren, there almost seems to be a culture of one-up-man-ship about giving up on dreams. The bigger the dream you quit on (being a professional athlete, musician, etc.), the more of a man you are. Now, being rich or famous isn't in the cards for everyone, nor is it everyone's dream. But I find the idea of defining maturity by how low you set your ambitions to be extremely unsettling.


These are the issues that we as Mormon culture are going to have to deal with if we want to produce great artists. As a culture we are going to have dig deep if we are going to make the next Mormon Spielberg, Beatles, or Arthur Miller. And that is a good thing for everyone. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Inactivity and Coming Back To Church: My Uncensored Look

"When you feel the heat, look into my eyes
"It's where my demons hide, it's where my demons hide.
"Don't get too close, it's dark inside
"It's where my demons hide, it's where my demons hide."
- Demon, by the Imagine Dragons

I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would become less-active. I was always really diligent about going to Church and I really loved the sense of community I always felt. But my life didn't go quite how I anticipated and I am now returning to activity after several years of being less-active and having many family and friends who have been less active. Being on the receiving end of reactivation efforts has shown me just how misunderstood being less-active is and how little understood reactivation is by most members of the Church. Thus the reason for this post. As the title implies, I'm not going to hold back a lot here, so you've been warned now that you might be offended by some of the views in this post.

Less Active Myths:

People go less active because of mainly petty offenses.

I think this is a convenient idea for active members. One bad apple doesn't spoil the whole bunch and less-actives need to just develop a tougher skin and more faith. Some people do get caught up in petty things, others develop serious doubts about doctrine. But here's the thing, a lot of people stop feeling safe at church and that's why they stop going. They're trying to avoid further trauma. Why do people stop feeling safe at church? There are a lot of scenarios. Some committed a serious sin and were met with a lot of shaming from members as they tried to put their lives right. Judgemental words and deeds, or serious trauma at the hands of one or more Church members are often the root. (This can be a big problem for men who have been victims of sexual trauma inflicted by other men, especially when the abuser was a Church member. They often don't feel safe in priesthood meetings and simply stop coming to avoid the panic it brings . It's a bigger problem than you think.) Local leaders who overstep their bounds and use their authority in ways that ends up being humiliating is another one. Feeling forced into Church by parents is another thing that pushes many young people out of Church. Some people become overwhelmed with family and financial or other issues and feel unable to shoulder the burdens of church too. 

If my kids are having trouble with Church, I should force them to go and it will be worth it in the end.

I have met so many less-active adults who felt forced into church activity by parents. They associate the Church with having their agency taken away. Forcing people to do what's right is Satan's plan; that is what we fought against in the War in Heaven. If your children are questioning the Church or struggling, follow the example of our Heavenly Parents (who do have all the answers) and continue to love your children, live your life the way you choose and teach (but not ram-down-the-throat) correct principles and then let them choose. This may seem scary, but there's a better chance that they will return and become more dedicated if they are allowed to find their own testimony and choose for themselves.

People don't come back to church because they get distracted by worldly pursuits.

Sometimes this is true. For me, my assigned ward felt so scary that the idea of going to church sometimes gave me panic attacks. I felt so threatened by the shame and embarrassment I had experienced at church that though I wanted very much to return to full activity, I couldn't do it. I felt extremely vulnerable at church. To understand the vulnerability/shame dynamic, I really can't recommend enough watching Brene Brown's TED talks "The Power of Vulnerability" and "Listening to Shame". This vulnerability/shame dynamic is what many less-actives are dealing with when thinking about coming back to church.

Why Did I Go Less-Active? 

There were a lot of things that added up, some big, some little. Mostly I felt like many of the people in the ward, including the leadership, had made a judgement about my family's situation when they really knew nothing about what was really going on. It felt like many of the people in the ward felt that seeing my family and my in-laws at Church for a few hours told them everything they needed to know. I felt that it was my in-laws' ward and the first loyalty of the leadership was to them- right or wrong. So I didn't feel like there was a place for us. For my husband, these issues were compounded by several other issues that go back into his childhood.

Why Did I Come Back?

It was a convergence of factors. I was feeling more ready to and a new bishop had been called who was willing to listen to us and has so far been helpful with aiding us in addressing the problems were facing and doing what he can to help us make the changes that we want to see happen in our life. What we felt from previous leadership was more of an emphasis on how great we had it, which was not helpful. How things going as we move forward remains to be seen. I still have a lot of mistrust of Church leadership.

What Helps?

Sincerity

If you are want someone to come back to church, the first thing you must do is be sincere in your love for them. Let me blunt here: less-actives couldn't possibly care less about the ward records showing perfect attendance. We're not interested in being another notch on the ecclesiastical bed post, and truthfully, that is how most fellowship efforts feel. We want to feel safe at church, and unless that happens, we won't come back. Many members have a terrible problem confusing numbers with Christlike love. Love and fellowship can not be quantified by numbers on an attendance sheet or reports to a mission president. If you're interested in helping someone back to church, you have to love them and be a true friend whether they come or not. And be forewarned, many less-actives are very suspicious and have a pretty high BS-meter. We can tell if you're faking interest in us for the sake of numbers. But seriously, get to know us! We can be pretty awesome people!

Patience

It won't happen overnight. It doesn't happen in 20 minutes like a seminary video. It may take years. But if it takes years, isn't that worth it? Take the counsel of Proverbs 17:17: "A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity." 

Don't be surprised

The need for this is vastly underestimated. You must be able to say "You can't surprise me", and it has to be true. Most who are less active are dealing with boatloads of baggage. Molestation, incest, rape, teen pregnancy, abortion, same-sex attraction, addiction, family dysfunction, questions about doctrine/supposed doctrine are all issues that contribute to becoming less active and for many people, and those issues have to be resolved if they are going to feel safe in coming back to church. They can't be swept under the rug. If someone tells a church leader or member they are struggling with one (or more) of these types of issues, the single worst thing that can be done is to sweep it under the rug or shame the person by telling them how bad a sin is and to simply stop.

This is something I wish every bishop understood: If people come to you and tell you they are having a problem, that is a really, really good thing. How good? So good that you should keep confetti in your desk for such occasions. Whenever someone tells you of their own free will that they are experiencing a serious problem or confesses a serious sin, you should shout "Hallelujah!" because these are the people who are experiencing a mighty change of heart. These are the people who want to make something great of their lives. The folks whose entire life and identity is wrapped up in being a by-the-letter Latter Day Saint who never talk about their problems? These are the ones you should be afraid of. In my experience, these people are often the ones who have serious dysfunction/transgression in their life and are trying to hide it like Bernie Madoff by being so "perfect" that they remain above suspicion.

Christ descended below all things. He took on all the ugliness of the world. He never hid from anything. If we want to be Christlike, we have to be willing to face the demons and help those who are struggling to fight them. (BTW, if you find someone who wants help with doctrinal issues, I can't recommend enough checking out the LDS Apologetics site www.fairlds.org.)

A note on treats...

Everyone loves treats, especially me! This can be a great way to show someone that you are thinking of them. But I do recommend asking about a person's diet before sending treats their way. One time a lady from our ward gave us green beans from her garden and that totally rocked!!!! We love getting fresh fruits and vegetables. Besides that, many people have food allergies and sensitivities or special dietary needs for health problems such as diabetes or heart disease. If you really want to rock someone's world, find out what they like and if they have any dietary restrictions.

What Doesn't Help?

Asking us why we are not coming to church

Sometimes it's necessary for a bishop or other leader to enquire about why a member isn't coming, but seriously folks, don't ask this is casual conversation. (See the above on "Don't be surprised".)

Telling us how great the ward is

In my personal experience, I hear this on a lot. Maybe it's just my ward. (This past fast Sunday there seemed to be a lot of testimonies dedicated to to how great a ward we have, along with the usual list of health problems and shout outs to family. Props to the two teens involved with special needs seminary who gave simple, short testimonies about the love of God and how they had seen it with the kids they were helping.) When I keep hearing this over and over again, I feel like people are trying to sell me on the ward. On the other hand, me having been inactive may make them feel insecure as if I've been judging the ward by not coming, so I realize it goes both ways. Just focus on being a good friend. Sometimes, a few really great people make more difference than a whole ward.

Overstepping your bounds

If you are in a leadership position such as a bishop, please be careful not to jump to conclusions or overstep the boundaries of your calling. One particularly humiliating incident for us happened when a bishop decided he needed to help my mother-in-law with a decision concerning us that was hers to make and no one else's. It was so painful that it was the nail in the coffin for us being involved with the ward. A very dearly loved family member of mine went inactive in junior high after the bishop of her ward accused her of using drugs (she wasn't). The bishop was absolutely certain about it though because his mother had claimed that she had seen the girl exit the bathroom with her friends and the girl's pupils were dilated. (Note, neither of these people were trained substance abuse professionals.) Though her parents believed her, no one else did because she was already struggling with church. The bishop demanded that she be sent away and she was. This did exactly nothing to help her with church activity and everything to drive her further away. (Though I'm sure it made the bishop's mother feel very important.)

This is also important with temple workers. I live within a couple of blocks of one of the busiest temples in the world (work for the dead-wise) and my husband and I went frequently after we were first married. We had so many humiliating experiences where we were criticized and belittled by temple workers that we stopped coming. A lot of people will hate reading this, but going to the temple often felt like stepping into a country club where we were in the way of an elite group's social gathering. It seemed the workers would have preferred to keep doing work for the dead and socializing with each other rather than having us there. I plan to get my recommend back some day soon, but there are certain temples I will never attend again because the experiences were too painful.

After living in close proximity to a temple and getting to know many temple workers, I really get the feeling that many temple workers are not there because they want to help others have an uplifting temple experience. Some are lonely and want a social experience, they want to feel needed, they want to feel important/authoritative, they need something to fill their time with, they like the social prestige the position gives or they are hoping that a lot of temple attendance will fix problems they are having in their life. I can say from personal experience that a few people become temple workers or very frequent attendees because they have serious sins they are trying to cover up. Not what anyone wants to hear, but this has been my experience. 

Honking at us as you drive by

I think this might be more localized to where I'm living, but it drives us crazy (no pun intended.) We get a lot of people honking at us as we are out for our family walk. It doesn't make us feel loved or accepted, it's actually quite startling and annoying. If you're out driving and you want to say hi to someone less active, stop and pull over and have a real conversation. Once the Relief Society President did this and it was actually quite nice. 

Asking about my father-in-law's health

Wow. I can't believe how many times we got this question before we went less active. People would see us in the foyer and the first thing they would ask is "How's your dad doing?" Rarely were we asked how we were doing. Now, this is probably because he never leaves the house except for doctor's appointments and most people in the ward have met him only a few times if at all and I'm told my mother-in-law doesn't talk about what's going on very much, so it's probably quite the mystery. But there is a much more polite alternative: Go over and visit him yourself. He rarely gets visitors apart from the home teachers. It's my understanding that the ward members are supposed to be the first ones to visit the sick and afflicted. Thankfully, since I have started going to church again, I have gotten few queries about my father-in-law's health. Another thing that happened after we had our first baby was that older women in the ward would come over and talk baby talk to our son and completely ignore us. It made us feel like we really didn't matter and our baby was just there for the older women's entertainment. It would have been nice to actually have people ask us how we were doing and be interested in getting to know us.

So there it is. My experience with inactivity and returning to church. I know everyone else has something different. But this is a subject we don't really talk about much as church members. Hopefully, we can start opening a dialogue.

Friday, February 14, 2014

About Time

For Valentine's Day, we rented a movie called About Time. It's about a man who can travel back in time. But there's a catch: if he changes anything before the birth of his child, he gets a different child in the future. I had to ask myself a question: If I could go back and change CJ's body so that his spine was normal, would I do it?

I have to say, the answer is no.

Judge me how you will, but I wouldn't change it. Spina bifida has been a part of CJ and a part of our family's experience and we wouldn't be the people we are if we hadn't experienced it. Everything about it, the NICU and operations, the walker, the birth trauma, the exhilaration of KJ's birth, the question of how we are going to deal with an older child who doesn't walk yet when his little brother does; those have all defined us. They are challenges but they are also treasures. It has been a beautiful life.

I love the person CJ has helped me become. I love the world of possibilities that he has shown me. I know he has challenges in this life, but we all do. Let the world go by. I am happy with my boy and his back.