What is Written on My Heart: Thoughts on Jeremiah 29

My responsibility at church for the past three years has been teaching about the scriptures. I have a complicated response to this responsibility. On one side, I love teaching. I love having the opportunity to explore more deeply ideas that I only have vague concepts about. I love having thoughtful discussions with different members of our congregation. I have learned so much about the scriptures and the life of Christ.

On the other hand, there is a moment in nearly every lesson I have taught—sometimes more than one moment, but several—when I find myself deeply buried in frustration, disbelief, annoyance, and incredulousness. Not only have I learned more about Jesus and the Bible, I have learned many things about Mormonism that have troubled me. I think this comes as a result of having grown up in a family that looked sort-of Mormon, even though we rarely acted very Mormon, or did Mormon-y things. (You can read more HERE about what I mean if you're interested.) I look like a life-long LDS person, but really I am a convert, but since I don't seem, on paper, to be a convert no one noticed just how little I actually knew about Mormonism.

Myself included.

So many times during the last year, while I've been preparing my lesson, I will reach a point of exasperation when I cannot believe that this is what my faith believes. An extreme example: the moment I realized that many people think the story of Noah is a literal historical fact, a thing that actually happened. (Give it two seconds of critical thought and you start to see that while it's a great story you can learn quite a bit about faith from, it cannot be literally possible.) This is likely a belief that's found in many Christian faiths, though, if not all. I've also bumped against many, many supposed "truths" that LDS people believe that I simply do not. My life and my holy experiences have taught me other things.

So in a sense (a very large sense, in fact), this teaching of the scriptures has been damaging to my faith as a Mormon person. I ask myself every time I prepare a lesson: why am I doing this? And I am not sure: is that why referring to the lesson itself? or Mormonism in general?

But then, with almost every lesson I prepare, I also have learned more about Christianity in general. While I am far from a learned scriptorian, I have gleaned some knowledge that has helped me in personal ways. A few weeks ago, I taught a lesson based on Jeremiah 29 and 31. One of the sections I read and discussed has continued to stay with me; it was one of those rare lessons when I could totally overlook what the Mormon take on the scripture was in order to have my own spiritual experience with it.

We started by discussing the idea of having God's truth written on our hearts. The lesson guide suggested that we illustrate this when we do things like dressing modestly, reading "good" books, and listening to appropriate music. This idea made me frustrated, as for me, God's truth that has been written on my heart is far, far deeper than external proof or cultural rules.

What having God's truth written on my heart made me think of, actually, was a scene from American Gods. When I read it in the novel, it impacted me, but when I saw it on the TV show? I literally had to walk out of the room I was crying so hard. In this scene, an elderly woman, after dying while cooking dinner for her family, is taken by the Egyptian god Anubis to a place where her heart would be measured. If it is light as a feather, she has made a good life and can choose how her afterlife is spent; if it isn't light enough, she is banished.

This made me cry so hard partly because dying while I cook dinner for my family seems like a good way to go, but mostly because I could picture myself in her place, kneeling in the sand, my beating heart being measured. I thought of all of the ways I have failed to be good, the kindnesses I have withheld, the way I have buried the light of whatever talents God gave me, the mistakes I have made as a parent, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend. Were it my heart on that scale, it would never be light enough. 

As I thought about that scene and my reaction to it, mixing it with the concept of God’s law being written on my heart, I started to imagine what, in fact, my heart might look like at the end of my life. Both the literal heart shape and the metaphorical “heart”—my personality, my goodness, my self in its totality. I saw my heart as a giant, weighty thing, with the knowledge I have gained inscribed deep into the flesh, some sections wild, meaningless swirls, others intricate and beautiful fleur-de-lis patterns. And what was it, what made those etchings like scars and paths and tattoos on my heart?

The sacred experiences of my life. Not the times I followed the rules, but the times I made the right choice. Or the times I made the wrong one and learned something. The times I forgave and the times I was forgiven. The simple, sweet moments: laughing with my children in our backyard, pushing a baby in a swing at the park, talking with a friend, holding my husband’s hand. Sitting on the floor of my kitchen eating pizza and watching the snow fall. Moments when time seemed to stand still while I was deep inside the creative process. Falling asleep; waking in a comfortable bed to a new day.

Is that God’s law written on my heart?

Maybe some would disagree, but I think it is, and here’s why. Chapter 29 of Jeremiah is a letter he wrote to the Jews who had been exiled to Babylon. In this letter, he writes something that reveals an important thing about God. He said that God has “caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon” these Jewish people. He allowed it to happen, for them to have to leave the city of their nation and to live somewhere strange, with new customs and people they haven’t known for decades. God allowed them to be banished.

But he doesn’t say “sit there and weep.” Instead God says: build houses, live in them, plant gardens, create families. Make a life.

This: this is what is holy. This is what matters. Making our lives. Living our lives we are given. We are all of us eventually or occasionally exiles in our lives. We all find ourselves banished, in some form or other. That God lets this happen is, I believe, one of God’s laws. Horrible things happen everywhere to everyone. And even in the midst of these sorrows, God wants us to still work on creating our lives.

It is through these acts of creation that our lives gain meaning.

And it is through these lives that God teaches us the individual things we must learn, each in our own lives. It is through these things that we come to know God, that his law is written in our hearts.

I felt this thing, and I tried to express it in my lesson, although I’m not sure I did. But a few days later, I had what I had tried to say, what I knew was true but couldn’t find the exact words for, put into the exact words I was trying to find. In a novel, Eternal Life by Dara Horn:

“Many days and years and people had passed before she understood that the details themselves were the still and sacred things, that there was nothing else, that the curtain of daily life itself was holy.”

The curtain of daily life itself is holy.

I don’t know if my heart will ever be light as a feather. I don’t know if I will ever be good enough, or understand exactly what is right. I know I will continue making choices, the right ones and the wrong ones. I know that this is what is sacred, what is holy, what is God’s law inscribed on my heart: live my life.

Hike to Pine Hollow Overlook or Where I Find Holiness

I know there are people in my neighborhood and church community—even some who read my blog—who will think this is wrong of me, but Kendell and I have had a lovely time this spring and summer hiking on Sunday mornings. Our church doesn’t start until 1:00 this year, and sometimes we make it back from our hike in time, and sometimes we’re late.

We’ve done familiar trails and new trails. Trails we’re just on for time and to build endurance, trails to waterfalls and overlooks and peaks. We’ve talked, we’ve argued, we’ve laughed. We haven’t figured out a dang thing yet or made any of the big decisions we really need to make, but we have spent time together in one of my favorite ways. Our relationship is stronger for it.

20180617_115638 kendell and amy pine hollow

But I still continue feeling a little bit guilty for hiking on Sunday.

Not enough to stop, though. And the experience I had a few weeks ago on the Pine Hollow Trail explains why.

This is a trail that is new to us. It starts at a parking lot in American Fork canyon (there is also a very small, four-car-sized turn out farther up the canyon where you can also park, but I wanted to start where I knew we could park for sure), the one that is just below the snow gate. You cross the road and the trail begins, fairly steep at first and following the contour of the Alpine Loop until there is a gentle sway to the left…and the canyon road is gone and you feel like you’re in the wilderness. We wanted to get to the overlook that is on one of the peaks in the canyon, so we made these turns:

  • Left at the first trail junction
  • Left on Ridge Trail 157
  • Left at Mud Springs 173
  • Left at unmarked trail—the left shoots west through a meadow; it’s hard to miss


(This beautiful meadow is just before the first left turn)

Then we were at the Pine Hollow Overlook, which is almost exactly across the road from where we parked, just about 2000 feet above. I love overlooks, especially the kind where you can sit on the cliff and dangle your feet over, even though it makes Kendell insane when I do this. (He’s not a fan of heights.)


We enjoyed the overlook—but that wasn’t the highlight of the hike for me.

About one-fourth of a mile from the overlook, there is a large meadow. The north peaks of Timpanogos come into view. The meadow was full of wildflowers—full. And they weren’t only the yellow ones I love, but every color: purple verbena and monkshood and columbine, red Indian paintbrush and pink fireweed, yellow arrowleaf daisies. When I reached this meadow, Kendell was about four or five minutes behind me, and there was no one else on the trail. I stopped. There was some sort of hawk flying over me, right through the blue sky, and I was completely overwhelmed. Right there in that meadow I found my childhood self (who was a miniature wildflower child), and my hiking self, and my running self, and my solitude-loving self.

I stopped hiking and I started crying because right there, right there on the mountain, I felt God’s love for me. I felt a deep sense of peace, and an acknowledgement of my value and individuality, that I mattered and that this beautiful world that I love exists partly because God knew I loved mountains, beauty, crags, cliffs, trees, sun, grass, stones, flowers, and that I would need those places as a balm for my heart.

I felt so much joy radiating at me from the Universe.


And I so rarely feel that in church anymore. In church I feel filled with my failures, overcome by my doubting tendencies, even, dare I admit, a bit annoyed at those who manage blind faith. In church I feel out of place; it is a cloak I draw over myself, my Church face, my Look at Amy Being Good apparel. At church I feel God’s disappointment in me.

In that meadow I felt God’s love for me.

Will I stop going to church? Probably not. But I also will continue seeking out that joy in the mountains, even on Sundays, as Sunday morning is when we can go together these days. Even if people judge me for it. My soul needs that recognition, needs that feeling I get only after great exertion, with quivery calves and noodles for quads, with that deep ache in my lungs (deeper these days). Those places and experiences are holy for me, and they are the holiness God made for me. I wouldn’t be loving God if I didn’t love this world in this way.

Sunday Thoughts on Abraham and Isaac

(I meant to post this last night; instead I helped Nathan study for a history test, hung up laundry, and then crashed! So, a Sunday thought on a Monday morning.)

Yesterday was my Sunday to teach gospel doctrine. When I started working on my lesson on Friday, I realized that the topic was going to be much more difficult for me than any other one might be (and I struggle quite a bit with many church topics, so that is saying quite a bit), as it was based on my most-detested bible stories: the narrative of Abraham binding his son Isaac and offering him as a sacrifice.

The last time I was in a church class that was about this story, I made a decision: I would not listen to it again. I would not listen to the admiring chorus of voices assenting that while, yes, Abraham must’ve struggled with the idea of offering his only son as a sacrifice because he felt prompted to do so, look at how obedient he was! Look at how strong his faith was! It took me some thought and a few months (or years even) to be able to put this reluctance, frustration, anger, and disgust into words, but here they are, despite seemingly all of Christianity believing otherwise:

I think Abraham made a mistake.

I believe in a God who allows horrible things to happen to humanity, not because he is a bad God but because horrible things must happen and because he values individual choice, even when it leads to humans doing horrible things. I think God grieves over these horrible things and wants us to be better; I believe that if we are Christlike we do whatever we can to not inflict horrible things on others. This is a difficult, painful knowledge, but true to me nevertheless.

But a God who asks a person not just to endure something horrible, but to enact something horrible? I don’t know how to understand that God.

Which leads me back to my belief that Abraham made a mistake.

I was more than a little bit anxious about teaching this class. One of my goals when I teach is to share insights without making the instruction about only my insights; I want my classes to be a space for people to ask questions, to think about topics in different ways, but I don’t necessarily need them to agree with me. I didn’t need anyone to agree with my thoughts about Abraham; I’m perfectly fine with everyone thinking I am wrong. But I also didn’t want to offend people, or cause them to think that I am a faithless person. I want to strike a balance: here is what I have learned about this gospel topic, but that is only my way of thinking about it; what do you think—what do you really think away from what others have told you to think? If I have an agenda in my lessons, it is not to convince anyone that my way of thinking is correct, but to convince them to ask themselves what they think.

Would it be better, I questioned myself as I wrestled with the material, to just go through the motions with this one? Just regurgitate all the old thinking?

I couldn’t do that, though. Partly because I re-read “Pro Femina” on Friday (“if wedded, kill guilt in its tracks when we stack up the dishes/And defect to the typewriter. And if mothers, believe in the luck of our children,/Whom we forbid to devour us, whom we shall not devour,/And the luck of our husbands and lovers, who keep free women.”)

Mostly because I promised myself, when I accepted the calling to teach the gospel doctrine class, that I would be true to myself and to my truths. I refuse to be Pretend Amy anymore, the one who puts on the gospel as if it were a coat. Instead, I want to explore how the coat is made, where its holes are, how it fits and how it doesn’t fit. Which often requires a bit of naked vulnerability on my part.

The lesson itself went far better than I expected, and afterward several people came to thank me for teaching it the way that I did. One comment especially affected me; an older woman in our congregation said “As you taught I kept thinking one thing: what did Sarah think about all of this?” That was my thought exactly, and honestly: I wish I could just skip most of this horrible story and explore Sarah’s reaction to it—but of course, she’s barely mentioned in the biblical text. I can make suppositions but only discussing Sarah would’ve required too much imagination.

What I didn’t have time to share fully is what I did find in the text (I read a bunch of different commentaries on it as well, so my insight is pieced together not just from my own reading but from what other people shared) and how it has influenced me. No matter how horrible this story is, or any story for that matter, there is something to be learned, and this is the insight that impacted me the hardest.

As Abraham and Isaac walk up the mountain, Isaac carrying the wood for his own execution, father and son talk to each other. We read his actual words. After the sacrifice attempt, we never hear his voice again. We read about Isaac, but don’t receive any of his words. After God intervenes with the ram in the bushes, the text says that Abraham walks back down the mountain—they do not go back down together. Throughout the rest of his life, Isaac is only a placeholder, an object rather than a person. Voiceless and silent. 

This lack of Isaac’s voice is another thing that makes me think that Abraham made a mistake; he didn’t understand what God wanted him to do. He made faith—or, more precisely, religion—more important than a living, breathing person. I think he acted blindly, receiving a thought that seemed like it came from God and then acting on it. It is not until he lifts up his eyes (or actually sees what he is doing) that he notices the ram—notices God giving him another option.

I know that Isaac carrying the wood is symbolic of Christ carrying His cross. But I also see it in another way: Isaac carrying his father’s burdens. We all bring a whole mess of baggage to our role as parents. I know that I did, and that my history as an adolescent especially affected my relationship with my children when they were adolescents. Haley the most, as she was the oldest, but also Jake. Just by the nature of the parent/child relationship, we share our baggage no matter how hard we might try not to. Isaac carried Abraham’s baggage up the mountain, and I think it is his devotion to God. Am I saying that being devoted to God is wrong? Of course not. But like anything, it can be taken too far. Abraham’s willingness to kill his son, without even arguing with God, can be interpreted in many ways. Some see it as him being so utterly faithful that he would do anything God asked.

I see it as Abraham creating an idol out of faith itself.

Isaac didn’t burn on the pyre. But something was sacrificed on that alter: the father/son relationship the two of them had. In the name of religion he betrayed another sacred relationship.

This realization forced me to ask myself: Have I ever done such a thing? Have I made my relationship with belief more important than my relationship with my children, husband, or other people I love?

And I think the answer is yes.

Not in the extreme way of Abraham. But most of my children have struggled with going to church, and like Abraham I just hauled them up the mountain with me, not giving them a choice. This is true especially of Jacob. I agonized through all of his teenage years, when he hated going to church for a bunch of different reasons, over what the right thing to do is. Keep insisting he go to church? Or let him choose? Letting him choose felt like…like weakness. Like I was giving up. Like God would look at me and say “you didn’t even try.”

Now it feels like I was also blind; I didn’t see all the rams in the thickets. I am certain there were many different solutions we could’ve found. I don’t know how that would’ve influenced his relationship with faith. But I do know that it would have influenced his relationship with me.

I still detest this story. But I’m so grateful I pushed through and taught it anyway, because I understand something of myself a little bit better. I can’t change the past. But I will move forward with a better understanding after this experience; I believe God wants me to be understanding, compassionate, and loving rather than so dedicated to religion that I am blind to everything else. I will question; I will lift up my eyes and search for better solutions.

18 on the 18th: February edition

My friends Elizabeth Dillow and Angie Lucas are doing an Instagram challenge: take 18 photos on the 18th of each month in 2018. I totally missed it in January, but wanted to play along in February. Was determined to play along, even though 18 photos seemed like a lot.

I woke up with ideas for this month's topic—color—but I forgot something: the 18th is on a Sunday. And lately Sundays have been rough on me. If I make it to church, I feel one sort of sadness, and if I skip church I have another sort. Sundays are not equaling funday in my life. (More like "lose my temper day" or "cry because I'm feeling like my life has been worthless day.")

And, yeah...this Sunday was also not awesome. 

But watching for color helped keep me a little bit more focused, even though I only took nine photos instead of 18.

Anyway, I shared them on Instagram (I'm amylsorensen over there, come follow me if you don't already!), but I wanted to write something about each image. So I decided to share them here, too. And hopefully once March rolls around, I'll be a bit more emotionally ready for a Sunday and 18 photos!

Feb 18 on 18 no5

I don't usually go running on Sunday. But we have two time-consuming (and stressful) medical experiences this week, and I still want to make my 12-miles-per-week goal, so I went running this morning. Probably it helped stabilize my mood anyway (quite of which is being influenced by my fear of those medical experiences). It was cold when I started, even though it was 45 degrees; the wind was biting and I was questioning my short-sleeves decision. But once I started moving it was just fine. These bright colors were perfect for a gloomy morning run.


Feb 18 on 18 no1

I was thinking while I ran "OK, I am going to find some some color" and then I started thinking about how that is one of the hard parts of winter for me: there's really not any color. And why spring is so refreshing: color slowly returns. This winter has been especially blah as it's been so brown here. Brown, dry winters are the worst; if it's going to be cold it might as well be snowy and white. This was the view as I ran up the canyon trail this morning. Ecru, beige, khaki, umber, buff: yes, those are colors, but not very vibrant. (I still love running here. Those dramatic cliffs! Can you see where the fault line curves?)


Feb 18 on 18 no2

The view on the way back down. Still blah colors...but a little bit of pale blue in the sky. There was a storm gathering, so that was the last bit of blue I saw today.


Feb 18 on 18 no4

But here, with just a mile left, I realized: that is yellow! True—old, worn out, tired yellow, but yellow all the same.


Feb 18 on 18 no3

There are also a bunch of these bushes in the canyon. I think they are pretty nondescript in the summer...but in winter, that violet-red is the only deep, vibrant color to be found.


Feb 18 on 18 no6

After my run, I went to visit my mom, who is in the hospital (still...two months and counting now). I thought about taking a few photos there, her blue hospital gown maybe (and now I think about it, I wish I would've taken a few photos of just her hands), but I know she's not really feeling in a photo-taking mood. I was feeling less emotional about my life, but more emotional about her (and being in the hospital reminded me to not forget to worry about the upcoming stressful medical week), so when we got home I wandered around my yard. These little snow crocus were some of the best things I ever planted. They come up in February and wither away at about the time the daffodils start blooming. They are bright and cheery and remind me that color will come back to the world. 


Feb 18 on 18 no7

Speaking of purple and yellow...I also have these brave little violets blooming in the space underneath my maple tree. I don't know where they came from, but they've been blooming since January. They are small...but determined.


Feb 18 on 18 no8

Before I went running, I threw every piece of running clothes out of my drawer into a pile on the floor in my bedroom. (I told you...bad Sunday. Too much drama to explain this, but some swearing was involved.) So after I showered I tackled reorganizing all of these. Put away most of my winter running clothes, found all of my capris, told myself I don't need any more running clothes. If I had a photo of my closet, you'd see: almost all of my clothes are black. In my everyday activities, I like wearing black; it makes me feel both inconspicuous and a little bit elegant. But when I'm running? Sure...there's black in that pile. But I also love colorful exercise clothes. They help me feel motivated to get out the door, and it seems like inattentive drivers notice you more when you're wearing something bright.


Feb 18 on 18 no9

Part of why I love scrapbooking is because of color. This is the next layout I'm going to make. I probably won't use 75% of what I pulled out...but, ooooooh, pretty.

My Sunday ended with a visit from my little niece and nephew. The youngest, Becca, is just two, and she wanted to show me her newest skill: telling the names of colors. Seriously! Could there be a more perfect end to today than finding colors with a cutie who would, every so often, just give me a hug.

Well, actually, something almost as good happened: it snowed! I can't wait to wake up in the morning and see the world finally made white again.

The LDS Church and its Relationship with Abuse in Marriage

In my life, I tend to figure out things by writing about them. I know this doesn’t work for everyone, but for me, writing is a thinking process (as well as a form of therapy sometimes): I start with a concept that is troubling me, and if I write about it enough I can eventually understand how I feel about it. It is much harder for me to do this with spoken words.

One of the concepts that I write about quite a bit in my personal journal is my relationship with my faith. I am a Mormon person, and this relationship shapes quite a bit of my life. I cannot say it is an easy relationship, and sometimes I’m not sure it is a good relationship. But not always, and there are things I love about my faith. It helps me be a better, kinder, more Christ-like person.

I don’t blog about my faith very much, however (even though this is my second religion-based post this week!), because my relationship is so complicated. I think the non-Mormon part of society sees LDS people in two lights: weirdos or saints. I barely have the emotional energy to work out my own issues, let alone explaining how we fall somewhere in between that spectrum (as all faiths do; as all people do).

But I woke up this morning thinking a strange thought: not my church. In the same tone as the hashtag “not my president.” This is because of the Rob Porter issue happening in Washington right now, not because there is yet another example of trump-era squalor, but because Porter is also LDS. It really isn’t the White House I am upset with. Like draws to like; I am no longer surprised by the corruptness driving our nation’s leadership. Of course trump would hire a man who beat his wife, because trump is a man who sees women as objects, not as people; he would likewise be drawn to men who see women in the same light.

No, who I am upset with in this issue is the LDS church. My faith. Because both of Porters’ wives went to their bishops (which is the ecclesiastical leader we are closest with) and asked for help…but neither of them received it. The details of these conversations aren’t shared anywhere that I know of, but as an LDS woman I can surmise what the “advice” was. “Work harder at your marriage.” “Be forgiving.” “Pray more.” Even, I would imagine, “you might be overreacting.”

This, friends, is not help. This is abuse. This is shaming. This is prioritizing appearance—LDS churches are full of happy, perfect families!—over reality. This is saying that keeping a marriage together is more important than safety, calm, kindness, or love.

This is making a golden calf out of marriage.

These sorts of things happen because in the LDS church, the leadership is made up of lay clergy: everyday members who are chosen as leaders. There is wisdom in this practice—sometimes. But there is also the possibility for great folly here. Being called to be the bishop doesn’t impart all of the world’s wisdom. A bishop is still just a man with his usual knowledge. And unless that bishop also happens to be a trained therapist or psychiatrist, he doesn’t have the knowledge or skills to help an abused woman. He can offer to pray for her. He could give her a blessing of comfort. But if his first piece of advice isn’t either “here is a list of therapists who might be able to help” or “what can I do to help you get to a safe place?” then he is perpetuating the abuse.

In my life, I have asked a bishop for help exactly one time. This was when I was a teenager, and my bishop also happened to be the principal of my high school. When I was deep inside my darkest and hardest years, I went to him and asked for advice. His answer? “You used to be a gymnast. Why don’t you join the cheerleading squad? You would be comfortable in those short skirts they wear.” No effort was made to explore why I was behaving the way I was. It was just assumed that I was a bad person, and that could be redeemed by…what? Encouraging the football team to win via flashing them my lovely legs? Those aren’t the words of a loving, religious leader. Those are the words of a man who has no clue how to help someone with mental health issues, and also a man who has no clue as to how damaging words can be.

That conversation was a form of spiritual abuse.

Nor was it, I have learned, an isolated incident.

Abuse isn’t a thing that can be “fixed.” The abuser’s actions aren’t caused by the abused person’s behaviors; they are the responsibility of the abuser, not the abused. Praying for it to end won’t make it end. Working harder to be a “good” wife won’t make it end.

Ending the relationship makes the abuse end.

I’m obviously not a trained psychologist. I’m no more equipped to help a woman who is being abused than my bishop is. Except for the fact that I am a woman. And I have friends who have been physically abused by their husbands. And also because I am not sure I have ever met a man who isn’t capable, in some form or another, of emotional abuse (not even my own husband). Except, the first thing I read this morning was Colby Holderness’s essay in The Washington Post. Even without that photo of her black eye, even with just her words, there is no doubt that Rob Porter is lying when he denies these accusations. The voice she writes with is the voice of a woman who has experienced abuse. You learn those intimate details only one way: by experiencing it.

And when she did experience it, her religious leaders didn’t help her get out.

Leaders of my faith tell us often that they value women. But this sort of story makes me ask: what are we valued for? As living, breathing human beings with purpose, ambition, goals, with the burning desire to live all of this life we’ve been given? Or as wombs?

If it is as wombs, then the church is no better than the president: it sees women as objects (albeit in a different light).

If it is as human beings, it is time for the church to act instead of just offer words. It is time for the church to listen to women and then to help them in functional, productive, healthy ways. I have no doubt that the Mormon church can do this. There are probably instances when it does. But Colby Holderness’s experience is the reality, not the exception.

And I know: I know some of my very closest friends might be cringing at this little post of mine. They might be thinking I am apostate, or I lack faith, or who are you to criticize the church? Who I am is a person with a conscious and a brain that God gave me, and a faith that is centered in Christ who said “do unto others.” I am a woman who believes with every ounce of my being that women matter as much as men. And I will not be quiet. I will not hush my voice or squelch my knowledge. And my knowledge is this:

The church must do a better job. It must stop being afraid to acknowledge the fact that abuse, both emotional and physical, happens. Even in the very “best” of LDS families it happens. Prayer isn’t action; faith without works is dead. When a woman opens up to a religious leader about abuse, that religious leader has a moral obligation to assist rather than to shame. To act, to serve, to do something.

Sometimes I write about my faith in order to figure out how to make sense of it. But I will not twist this into something sensible. It is something wrong. It is a symptom of a deeper problem: the belief that holding the priesthood makes a man into a good man. It doesn’t, just like becoming a bishop doesn’t make a man into a professional capable of helping people with emotional trauma. But it is also easily fixed; bishops and other leaders should receive better training, and a large part of that training should be the skill of listening and then acting.

If the church truly values women as people, it must change.

Sunday Musings: On Noah's Ark and the Difference Between a Real Story and a True Story

I don’t have many memories of going to church as a child, mostly because we almost never went, but the ones I do have are fairly vivid. During one of the stretches we were going to church, I remember sitting in my primary class listening to the story of Noah’s ark. As I listened to the teacher tell the story of the animals coming on board the ark, two by two, I had a thought that made me squirm in my chair a little, I wanted to share it so badly. As I was a shy girl who almost never said anything in any class at all, let alone a church class where I didn’t feel comfortable or welcome at all, it was a scary thing to me, sharing my thoughts. But I was brave. After she told the story, I raised my hand and said “this story reminds me of the book I am reading right now, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” Then I started to say why they felt the same to me—the animals I guess—but before I could get more than a few words out, the teacher stopped me.

“There is no similarity at all between those two. The scriptures aren’t fairy tales.” Her voice was heavy with scorn, and then she talked about something else. (You can guess how often I said anything in church after that.)

As I was only six or seven when this happened, I am interpreting the experience through my adult lens, of course. And there are quite a few ways that Sunday influenced me. But one of them was my stubborn insistence (silent, spoken only in my head forever after) that they are the same, because they are both stories. Of course there are no magic rings that take us to Narnia, just as there are no boats big enough to hold all of the animals. These are stories, with characters who have adventures and grow up and change. Stories!

And I liked both of them.

I thought about that experience a lot this weekend, when I was preparing my lesson for church today. The topic? Noah’s ark. And as I read and studied different things, it hit me: some Christians—many, in fact—believe that the flood was a literal event that happened just like it is explained in the Bible.

I finally had to stop my lesson preparation and talk to Kendell and a few friends, just so I could get some perspective. Do people believe that really happened? Wait, what? The answers I got varied; some friends said yes, some said no, a few said “hmmmm, I’ve never really thought about it.”

And I had some deeply anxious moments of questioning my own belief system. I often feel like this—that somewhere there exists a rule book of things that Mormons (and Christians in general) believe and don’t believe, do and don’t do. Except I’ve never read it—because while yes, I grew up as an LDS girl in a seemingly LDS family, we really very rarely went to church until after my grandpa died, so while we looked like Mormons I actually feel like a convert—and so I am constantly bumping into things I didn’t know about my faith.

Like the fact that some people believe in the realness of the story of Noah’s ark.

Even when I was that little, pagan-hearted shy kid, I thought it was just a story, because how could all of the animals fit? And how did Noah get all of the animals from all across the world? (If you are interested in reading the many, many reasons why the story of Noah's ark is a story, try this essay. It's really interesting.) I still liked the imagery of it, the storyness of the story. But I never questioned that it was anything other than a story from the scriptures. (For the record, I feel the same way about Jonah inside the whale.)

So for a while, I was stymied at how I could teach a Sunday School lesson about Noah’s ark. I can’t pretend I think it really happened in the way the scriptures tell the story. And I didn’t know that I could stand in front of a class without shouting REALLY? Don’t you see all the logical holes in this plot?

But I don’t think that would be a class anyone would learn anything from.

So I took a deep breath, put on my Big Teacher pants (which are similar to Big Girl Panties, of course, and perhaps related to Smarty Pants), and thought about whether or not it matters. Does it matter if Noah’s ark is a real story? (A story of something that happened in history.) or a true story? (A story that both entertains and relates human truth, knowledge, experience, or some combination of all three.) For me—a person who loves and quite often learns from non-real stories, it doesn’t. (At least…aside from my bafflement that we’re supposed to believe it is real.)

This is because a story really doesn’t have to be real to be true.

And that long-ago primary teacher was wrong: the scriptures are like fairy tales. (And The Chronicles of Narnia aren’t fairy tales, anyway; they are allegorical Christian fantasy.) There are truths in fairy tales, too, even if sprites, pixies, and goblins don’t really exist. There are things for us to learn from stories. Christ himself taught in parables, so why can’t the Old Testament do the same?

(And really: does thinking that the Noah’s Ark story is an allegory make me a bad, faithless Christian?)

So for my lesson, I taught about what we can learn from the story of Noah’s ark. (I didn’t even bring up the real/not real issue.) There are many truths to be found there if you look at the story through a metaphorical or symbolic lens. Just the concept of an ark itself, a thing that God tells us to prepare so that when our personal flood comes we have a safe place to be, is a topic we could’ve discussed the whole class period. But there was one truth I really wanted to remember from this experience with the story of Noah’s ark. Before the flood, God grieves over the wickedness of his children. He “repents himself” of making humanity in the first place; in other words, he grieves for their mistakes. Then he judges them, as is God’s prerogative, and starts over.

Through judgement comes utter destruction.

It made me think of the relationships I have in which I’ve grieved over the choices of others. Not because they were wicked or evil, but because they were painful to me in some way. There is a connection—God grieves, too, which makes me feel a strange sense of peace. I am not alone in that sadness. But at the same time, I am not God. I don’t have the wisdom to judge anyone. But I do, as I think about this story, have the wisdom to see how destructive and devastating judgement can be. So I will grieve, but I will not judge. I will not put to waste everything that I have made because it isn’t exactly what I imagined it would be. Instead I will just keep loving and trying and moving forward.

And I will consider Noah, who I am also like. He lived in a desert, and God told him to make a boat. He couldn’t have known why, exactly, or what would happen, but he still did it, still wrestled into shape an impossible and seeming illogical concept. I am often invested in a similar work, in making something that seems illogical because God (or, quite often, the experiences of my life) asks me to. I think as a religious (or am I simply spiritual? I am still working that out) person in contemporary society, I must do that more and more. I must try to understand what is not always legible, I must have enough faith to make something that initially seems illogical. It is difficult and I am often dumbfounded and unsure. But I will keep trying to make my ark, and if I know myself, and if God also knows me, it will be made of true stories.

Thoughts on Finding Your Ideal Life

When Haley was little and I was pregnant with Jake, I had a conversation with a dear friend that troubled me for many years. We were talking about motherhood and babies; I was expecting and she had a newborn. I’ve forgotten the crux of the conversation, but I will never forget something she said: “The only thing I’ve ever wanted to be is a mother,” she said, her face happy as she patted her son, who was slung over her shoulder in that milk-drunk contented sprawl that babies have. “I don’t want a career or anything else. I just want to be a mom.”

Her comment troubled me because not only was that not how I felt (or ever had felt), it is what our culture (we are both LDS) tells us we are supposed to feel. An ideal LDS family, it seemed to me then, was one with a husband who had a fantastic job that paid for a big, beautiful house and provided enough money that the wife could be a stay-at-home mom, happily raising her children. (Who would all grow up to also have this ideal life.)

While I did want to be a stay-at-home mom, I also had other aspirations. I wanted to finish my education. I wanted to travel. I wanted to be a mom and other things. And I had always wanted that; when I was a little girl playing with dolls, I never just mothered them. I took them to imaginary places. We went on airplanes together. I got them dressed and took them to the babysitter and then picked them back up. (The “babysitter” was another doll.) Even as that very little version of myself, I wanted to be a mother but I also wanted to be other things.

And the fact that I wanted that AND felt, to my very-young and still-learning-about-being-an-adult self, to be wrong somehow. Like the aspiring part of me was someone I had to tamp down and control.

But life has a way of teaching us what we don't know we need to learn.

Amy and kids 05 24 2017 hawaii hilo
My "mother's day" photo this year, a few days late: me and my kids at twilight on a beach in Hilo, Hawaii. Non-awesome exposure because the sun was almost down, but a photo I love and cherish anyway.

I did get to be a stay-at-home mom, something I wanted desperately to do when my kids were young. I feel blessed that I had that time, even though it was difficult.

When I had to start working away from my kids, because of financial difficulties, I was devastated. Angry and frustrated because I thought I had chosen what I needed to choose in order to continue to be blessed in that way. I always felt lucky to be a sahm, even though I always had those aspirations, because I wanted to have that time with my kids, have those experiences that can only come when you’re at home all day with small children. It was difficult and sometimes I felt lonely and lost, but I never resented it. When I had to give it up, the devastation came because I didn’t get to continue having those moments. I wasn’t ready to stop being a stay-at-home mom, and those years of working full time as a teacher were difficult.

But they were also rewarding. They taught me that I could find happiness and satisfaction in many different roles. They gave my children some positive experiences that shaped them in ways I couldn’t have. They also taught me the value of choice, of considering my options and striving to choose what was right not just for my family but also for myself. They taught me the value of my aspirations.

During my time of being a mother, I have also been a student, a writer, a teacher, and a librarian. I have been a person who makes things and who teaches other people how to make things. A runner, a hiker. Even a traveler (although not nearly enough).

Now I am in what I am starting to think of as the post-minivan time of motherhood. We only need a car with four seatbelts, and car seats are a thing of the past. It’s been years since I had little ones; I’m in the middle of teenagers and new adults. And I still have aspirations. I still have many things I want to do: write successfully to a wide audience; travel to many more places; hike as many peaks as I can. Inspire more people to love books and libraries. Run another marathon or two or five, run even more half marathons. I have even started to imagine myself becoming active in local politics. And: I plan on continuing to take care of my children, even if they are no longer children. I hope their futures intertwine with mine, I hope they find good spouses and I hope their spouses want a relationship with me, too. I hope my kids become parents one day. If they want. More than anything, I want them to find lives that they love, lives that are ideal for them. I want them to choose the things that will bring them the deepest happiness which is, I’m convinced, not based on fulfilling someone’s idea of what is ideal but their individual and unique versions of ideal.

And I hope through all of that to be a mother to them.

A few days ago, I had a conversation with a dear friend that’s been troubling me a little bit. It’s such a different format of conversation than the one I had twenty years ago with my old friend (who did, by the way, achieve her desire: she has a large family and has been able to stay at home with them), over Facebook, so I could write the exact crux of it. But what matters is her concern: what will she do with herself when her youngest child heads off to school? Who will she be? How will she bear having those days of actively mothering her little kids come to an end?

What troubles me is that she only feels sadness about this new chapter in her life, not excitement. Don’t get me wrong: I, too, was sad when Kaleb headed off to first grade. But I was also excited for the time I had to pay more attention to myself. I’m troubled for her—that she might mourn too long, or always look backward instead of focusing on what is here before her. Motherhood is a blessing, but it is not the only thing that defines us. It troubles me because our culture sometimes focuses on motherhood without acknowledging that we are all, also, other things, and that the intense work of mothering small children always comes to an end. They grow up. What you will be when that happens is up to you, and that choice is also a blessing.

Our conversation, though, also helped me to understand again a knowledge I am continually relearning. When I look back over the shape that my life has taken over the past 25 years, I do feel blessed. Lucky, even. But I don’t have that ideal LDS family. I don’t have the big, beautiful home on the bench (preferably near a temple). I have adult children who aren’t interested in the church. I have my own struggles with my faith. But between the opportunities God blessed me with and the choices I made, I have been able to find my own ideal, too. Or at least, I am in the process of creating it. I won’t be finished making it until I am finished with my life.

This is what I didn’t know when I had that long-ago conversation with my friend: her desire to be a stay-at-home mom wasn’t bad, and my desire to be a mom and something else was also not bad. Like motherhood itself, my aspirations for an and are God-given. They are part of who I am and to deny them is to deny how God made me.

I cherished my days as a stay-at-home mom. And I am cherishing my days right now, in my post-minivan world. I am a mother and I am many other things, and that, for me, is the ideal. And I think it should be everyone’s ideal: find who you are. Choose who you will be. If that choice is staying at home, do that if you can. If that choice is being a mom with a career, do that. The ideal image of the perfect Mormon family is only that: an image. Perfect is what you create for yourself.

Perfect is the act of choosing, with all of the attendant messiness that happens after. Perfect is embracing who you are. Perfect is knowing that is ideal.

on Finding Answers at Church

I have a confession: I have not been to all three of my church meetings since the beginning of November.

My excuse was Kendell’s surgery; I didn’t want to chance bringing home any germs whatsoever.

Really, after the election I was so disappointed in my fellow Mormons, 61% nationally and 45% in Utah, for voting for Trump, especially after so many before the election were not going to vote for him. I just did not want to go and sit in a congregation who, as religious people, could feel comfortable choosing someone who only “shares” one traditional Mormon value, being pro-life. (And I put “shares” in quotes because let’s be honest here: does anyone really believe that Donald Trump cares one bit at all if women get abortions? He cares about votes and he used “pro-life”—a term that is rhetorically ridiculous anyway—as a way to get votes.)

But this isn’t a political post.

This is a post about finding answers in church.

Colossians 3 15

Don’t get me wrong: I am still bitter about all the Mormon Trump voters. But a few conversations and some carefully-read Facebook statuses have reminded me that my little congregation has fewer than 45%. And after almost three months of only sporadic church attendance, I felt I needed to go more than I needed to object by not going.

So, I went to church this morning. All three meetings. And I paid attention. I went with a prayer in my heart, one of those prayers that, if uttered, would be a combination of a keen and the word “please.” I don’t even know how to name the help I need right now, as recent events (and I have now turned from political to personal) have ripped my heart out and left me absolutely stunned and in mourning (but which I can’t blog about, I’m sorry).

The answers I found at church were not solutions to these events. Not one thing has been solved. I still don’t know what to do or how to fix this problem I’m being vague about.

The answers reminded me, though, that the only thing I can shape, influence, or change is myself, because I only get to make choices for myself and how I will react.

And they gave me a little bit of peace.

So much of what I am trying to cope with has to do with choices, and with boundaries, and with knowing how to choose to act within or outside of those boundaries. In one of today’s classes, which was about reading the scriptures and nothing even close to my issues, the teacher reminded us that God does not force himself inside of our personal boundaries. He gives us a way to find Him, but he doesn’t make us come to him. He waits until we are ready to have Him enter our personal space.

I wish I could explain exactly how direct an answer that was to my “please.”

Even though it is a hard answer to cope with. It means waiting, outside. It means trying to be patient, like Christ has been patient with me. It means I cannot fix, or help, or do, but only try to send love through space and into a heart. It means the keening of my heart will continue indefinitely.

Maybe I did learn, a little, what to do. Maybe I just don’t know how yet.

Two of my answers came through hymns. We sang “Now Let Us Rejoice,” which is a Mormon hymn through and through, written by one of the early saints after a particularly trying experience they had as they crossed the plains. I’ve likely sung it one million times in the past twenty years, but this time, this time. I couldn’t get through the third verse, which has these words:

In faith we'll rely on the arm of Jehovah
To guide thru these last days of trouble and gloom,
And after the scourges and harvest are over,
We'll rise with the just when the Savior doth come.
Then all that was promised the Saints will be given,
And they will be crown'd with the angels of heav'n,
And earth will appear as the Garden of Eden,
And Christ and his people will ever be one.

This experience I am vagueblogging about is one I can only witness. Much damage has already been done in the making of space. It has been made clear that my help is unwanted and unhelpful, and even though I love this person, the only thing I can do is watch. And I very much will have to lean on Christ’s shoulder to do this. These are some days of trouble and doom for me, darker than I know how to cope with, and I think we are only at the beginning of the scourges. I’m not particularly good at this—at relying on Christ. But with this situation, it is all I can do. So that promise at the end—really, I don’t want crowns. I just want to be one with my people, in the way I had imagined but am not being allowed to right now. That is what I want.

The only way out is through and I think there will be a long road of stumbling in the dark for me.

So I will try to remember to lean on Christ’s arm. Maybe even cry on His shoulder.

The other hymn that moved me was “Count Your Blessings.” Especially these words:

Amid the conflict, whether great or small,
Do not be discouraged, God is over all.

I mean to count my blessings in this blog post. To write a long list of everything I am grateful for right now. Perhaps I will do that tomorrow. But tonight, I think I needed to write this instead: I am having a hard time. With my family, with my faith. I didn’t want to go to church, but I did, and I found help there. It wasn’t the miraculous, everything-is-fixed sort of help. But it was miraculous in a small, gentle way. My answers were this: give space, lean on Christ, remember there is light even in this darkness.

The keening in my soul is still loud and sharp. I am still unable to articulate what might need to happen for things to get better. But, I went to church with a prayer in my heart, and I found some things that brought me the smallest bit of peace and knowledge. A little bit of light to illuminate my next few steps. And that will be enough to keep me moving, if not exactly forward, at least not backward. At least I am not standing still.


Sunday Thoughts: Whosoever will Come

A few years ago in Relief Society (the women’s organization of the LDS church), something infuriating happened to me that made me vow to change how I react. We had a lesson about modesty—never my favorite lesson to teach, let alone listen to, as I think our rhetoric places too much blame on women’s bodies and not enough responsibility on men’s thoughts. But I sat through the meeting, gritting my teeth a little bit, until one of the women in the class raised her hand to make a comment. “The mothers of teenage girls in our ward need to set a better example,” she declared, “at dressing modestly. There is just too much skin shown here, and who else will these girls learn from if not their mothers?”

I sat for a few seconds in stunned silence. I knew exactly who she was talking about: me and a few other women (not of whom, actually, have teenage daughters anymore) who dress…I don’t know. In pencil skirts, in skirts that skim our knees, in tops that show our structure. I don’t think I’m immodest. Maybe she thinks my clothes are too tight or my skirt is too short, but mostly I don’t care because A—I dress to make myself happy, not anyone else and B—I am teaching my daughter (and my sons, for that matter) that what matters most is our voice and how we use it, not our external appearance. But instead of saying anything, I blushed. I felt, for a second, literal shame. And then I felt annoyance and frustration and resentment, and instead of saying anything I just walked out of the class for a few minutes.

But this isn’t a post about modesty.

That Sunday afternoon, that women’s comments, but mostly my lack of courage, changed me. I went home fuming and was ranting to Kendell about it when he asked me what my response was. And I had to tell him: my response was silence.

And silence is implicit agreement.

I decided that day that I will not be silent any longer. I don’t want to be aggressive or antagonistic, but God gave me a brain, thoughts, and opinions, and just because they might not coincide with the majority way of thinking doesn’t mean they aren’t valid.

For the most part, I have stuck to the promise I made to myself. Then, a few months ago, I was asked to be the gospel doctrine teacher.

And for the entire week before my first lesson, I thought about that Sunday experience, about how often I doubt myself because my normal thought pattern or response is so wildly different than a “typical” Mormon’s. For many years I have let this truth make me feel less-than. But I am learning that it doesn’t. Sitting in a room with people who only echo back what everyone else says isn’t learning. It’s not really thinking, it’s just going through the motions.

So I made another decision—another promise to myself: If they want me to teach Sunday School, I will happily teach it. But they called me, not pretend-Amy, the one who is silent because she thinks her non-typical response might offend someone or, even worse, make people think she is weird. I am weird, I am different, I am the person my choices and experiences have created. And I’m not a mirror, reflecting back what everyone thinks they already know. I’m a person, and I will teach with my personality, my experiences, my truths; I will share my ideas even if they are different than what everyone else might think.

I think I have done that so far. Or, at least, I am getting better at it. I know my every-other-week classes aren’t the Amy Show. The classes should be about learning and understanding the doctrine of the church. So I have strived for a balance and I haven’t always shared my most radical thoughts. But I have stayed true to what I know.

In today’s lesson, we discussed this scripture:

Yea, verily I say unto you, if ye will come unto me ye shall have eternal life. Behold, mine arm of mercy is extended towards you, and whosoever will come, him will I receive; and blessed are those who come unto me. (3 Nephi 9:14)

I love this scripture.

It is Christ inviting us. It is Christ telling us how we can find Him: we just have to take his hand. So much is implied. Namely, that it is a choice. He doesn’t say “you have to come to me.” He says if. He gives us room to choose, and in that space all the difference is made for me.

And He also says this word, this ungainly but infinitely important word: whosoever. He doesn’t say All of you who are perfect can come to me. Or All of you who haven’t ever sinned, not really, you can come. He doesn’t say “only men” (even though that “him” might suggest that), he doesn’t say “only white people,” he doesn’t say “only those with the correct lineage.” He just says whosoever.

Whosoever choses.

I discussed this. And then I discussed my dad, who was a good man raised by an agnostic mother, who struggled with many things about the church, who went to the coffee shop nearly every morning of his adult existence. And I can’t help but think what if? What if someone had made it clear that he, too, could come unto Christ, even though he drank coffee?

Then I suggested to the class that we have to be better at this.

But I didn’t stay entirely true to my goal of being regular Amy instead of pretending-I’m-a-real-Mormon Amy. Because what I wanted to say is this:

I think as a church we are horrible at encouraging people to come to Christ. I mean, sure. We encourage each other, all of us who go to church. But we have ideas about who can really come unto Christ. As a woman, I have felt it harder to reach out and grab his arm of mercy, because it seems that men have all the real power and Christ, after all, is a man. As a person with a rather brightly checkered past, I have felt I couldn’t really come unto Christ, because sure: repentance and atonement, but deep down I don’t really feel the same as the blithely non-checkered I am surrounded with.

But it is, of course, bigger than me. Because what if my dad could’ve been loved and welcomed at church, despite his coffee drinking? What if your friend who drinks beer could also come to church and not feel like someone’s project, but just like a member of the congregation? What if we all only worried about bringing our own selves to Christ, and assumed everyone else was also worthy of bringing themselves to Christ?

Because Christ Himself told us: whosoever.

I was a little bit brave—suggesting that my dad should’ve been loved and embraced by our home congregation. Some people even nodded in agreement.

But I wish I would’ve been more forceful. I wish I would’ve been braver. I wish I would’ve said: we need to love more freely. Even though part of how we come unto Christ is through our obedience, everyone is learning different truths at different times. Everyone is somewhere within the process of reaching to grasp Christ’s hand. And feeling loved and accepted by the people around us makes it so much easier to reach out.

Christ doesn’t want us to wait until we’re “good enough” to reach for Him. It is through coming to Him that we reach different levels of goodness. That is why those who do reach for Him are blessed, and as a church we need to encourage all of the reachers, rather than batting their hands away and telling them to come back when they are all worthy.

Because we are all worthy—even me in my pencil skirt and flouncy top, with my baggage and my mistakes and my history.

And maybe that’s why I needed to say what I didn’t say in my lesson, and why I am writing it now: because I also needed to be reminded that all can come to Christ.