Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Part 3 of 3: Imaginary conversations with a conservative Mormon woman about feminisn and the Church.

Jules Bastien-Lepage, Harvesting Potatoes in October

In light of recent controversies surrounding women and the priesthood, I have thought about how I might have a conversation with a conservative Mormon woman about issues facing women in the Church. 

This is the second of three parts. In Part 1, I focus on my desire for unity with my conservative friends in the Church despite our disagreements, my belief that the Church is a work in progress, and the possibility that current policy may not fully reflect the will of God. In Part 2, I talk about habits of exclusion and our tendency to allow men to teach women how to be women, without reciprocity. In Part 3 below, I speak about presiding in the home and ordination to the priesthood. Of course, my thoughts are my own, and they do not represent the official positions of my church or any other organization.

Presiding in the Home

One doctrine that I hope is clarified and refined in the near future concerns husbands presiding over their families. In recent years, General Authorities have made it clear that husbands and wives are to make decisions together as equal partners. This has not always been the case. The term "equal partners" carries with it powerful implications. For example, in a business, equal partners may have different responsibilities, but they are equally invested, and they have equal measures of influence and decision-making authority. It makes sense to me that the same principles of equality would apply to a marriage partnership.

But this concept of equality seems to contradict the teaching that men are to preside in the home. According to the dictionary, preside means "to exercise guidance, direction, or control," or "to occupy the place of authority." I have not found a way to reconcile the notion that the husband presides, with the teaching that husbands and wives are equal partners. If women and men are both responsible for leading, teaching, and directing their families, and if they share equally in making important decisions, in what sense does the man preside?

Though men hold the priesthood, women and men both draw on the power and blessings of the priesthood as they make their way back to God1. Elder M. Russell Ballard taught that the priesthood power in the home is shared by husband and wife.  But if this is true, then surely husbands and wives are are equally entitled to receive revelation for their homes and jointly responsible to guide and direct their families. I cannot think of any meaningful way in which it makes sense for a husband to preside in the home that does not equally apply to his wife. I believe that families cannot reach their full potential for spiritual and temporal strength without both parents leading. To my mind, emphasizing a man's leadership in the home over his wife's leadership diminishes both husband and wife.

Think of the potential to remove cognitive dissonance, increase our understanding, and strengthen our marriages if the language of the Proclamation on the Family were clarified this way:  

By divine design, fathers and mothers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness. 

Think of the increased sense of purpose it would give to our young women as they prepare to becomes wives and mothers. Think of the clarity it would give to young men as they prepare to honor their roles as husbands and fathers.

Talking about Women's Ordination

Finally, what about the priesthood? Though I do not personally seek the same kind of priesthood responsibilities that males have, I would argue that no member of the Church should belittle or ridicule the desire that some women have to hold the holy priesthood. Not just because we are commanded to love one another, not just because these women are our sisters and their pain is our pain. But because a close examination of scripture and church history teaches us that this is a complicated issue without clear-cut answers.

When Joseph Smith spoke to the newly organized Relief Society in 1842, he said that he would "make of this Society a kingdom of priests." The word "ordain" was used in setting apart Emma Smith and her counselors. Moreover, it was common in the early days of the Church for women to give healing blessings using the laying on of hands, and Joseph Smith expressly defended the practice saying, "if the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold  their tongues, and let every thing roll on." I see nothing in the standard works that explicitly bars women from holding the priesthood. I am not trying to make the case for female ordination to the priesthood, but I am trying to make the point that our history is full of ambiguities and unanswered questions. It is natural that we should ask whether women will someday hold the priesthood or even whether we, in some sense, already do. And if God Himself, master of the universe, allows us — no, commands us — to come to Him in prayer with our questions, doubts, and petitions, perhaps we should be less afraid to petition our leaders for greater light and knowledge.

I do not seek ordination to the priesthood (at least not the same priesthood that men hold in its current manifestation), for several reasons, some of which can be rationally explained, some of which are inexpressible in words, and some of which are too delicate or sacred to explain in a public forum. They are not persuasive reasons; they are personal. For now, I will not share them here.

But allow me to point out that my reasons do not include the fact that I am a mother, bearing and raising children. The idea that motherhood is to women what priesthood is to men does not resonate with me. I fear that drawing a false priesthood-motherhood parallel does a disservice to both men and women. Fatherhood, not priesthood, is the analog to motherhood.When we say that women don't have the priesthood because they are mothers, we are implicitly claiming that motherhood is somehow more fulfilling, more important, or more exalted than fatherhood. Given that God himself chooses to be addressed as Father, I cannot believe that the sacred calling of parenthood matters any less to men than it does to women2.

Men have fatherhood plus priesthood. Women have motherhood plus . . . what? I long for women to have . . . something, some role in the Kingdom of God that allows us to more fully express our potential as leaders, teachers, and prophets. Whatever doctrinal addendum or change to be wrought would take a revelation from heaven. I have not been given any such revelation, but I hope that the leaders of the Church are earnestly seeking further understanding of the divine roles of women. I only have the vaguest inkling, a hazy vision, of a glorious heavenly council that includes men and women, where women are neither on a pedestal nor subjugated, but equal participants with their hearts, bodies, and minds. Where men were made for women just as surely as women were made for men. Where women speak and lead alongside men. I long for truth to pour out from heaven, until the reality of equality between men and women is made fully manifest.

I welcome you to turn this imaginary conversation into a real one by sharing your thoughts in the comments section.

 1My own analogy to illustrate this principle is that my husband might hold a flashlight, but it belongs to both of us, and we both can see the light and use it to make our way along the path.
2Claiming that motherhood is our answer to the priesthood is also problematic in that it excludes (at least in this life) the many women who will never have the opportunity to be mothers and the young women who are still waiting to be mothers, even while their male peers are progressing in the priesthood.

Part 2 of 3: Imaginary conversations with a conservative Mormon woman about feminism and the Church.

Francis Coates Jones, Women in a Rowboat
In light of recent controversies surrounding women and the priesthood, I have thought about how I might have a conversation with a conservative Mormon woman about issues facing women in the Church. 

This is the second of three parts. In Part 1, I focus on my desire for unity with my conservative friends in the Church despite our disagreements, my belief that the Church is a work in progress, and the possibility that current policy may not fully reflect the will of God. In Part 2 below, I will talk more specifically about issues affecting women in the Church. Of course, my thoughts are my own, and they do not represent official positions of my church or of any other organization.

When I attended church yesterday, I was particularly aware of the important ways that women contributed to my Sunday worship. The congregational hymns and choir number were chosen and directed by women. There were two assigned sacrament meeting speakers: a man, followed by a woman. The Gospel Doctrine Sunday School teacher was a woman, and the majority of the comments in the class were made by women. The Young Women's meeting that I attended in my role as adviser was briefly interrupted by the sustaining vote of a new presidency in the Beehives, the class for girls aged 12 and 13. Following the sustaining, the doctrinal lesson was taught by a 17-year-old young woman.

Those of us who seek changes in policy must acknowledge the many opportunities that women of the Church already have to teach, lead, and influence. If there is to be any meaningful conversation, I believe that we must better understand and respect women like you, women who feel empowered in their roles, women who know that they are heard, counted, and valued.

Recently, several changes have brought greater visibility and more opportunities for women: the lower age requirements for missionary service, the new sister training leader missionaries, the women praying in General Conference, the inclusion of a female speaker in the Christmas devotional broadcast, the portraits of women leaders hanging in the Conference Center. In a recent New York Times article, Relief Society General President Sister Linda K. Burton was quoted as saying that the church will benefit as “men’s vision of the capacity of women becomes more complete.” This is an exciting time of progress for women in the Church.

Several times, I have heard you ask, "Why is it important that women pray in General Conference? Does it really matter who says the prayer?" You rightly point out that the efficacy of the prayer is not affected by the gender of the one praying.

Habits of Exclusion and Damaging Messages

But I feel certain that these small things do matter. It matters who says the prayer, it matters whose portraits hang in the Conference Center, it matters who speaks at worldwide broadcasts. It matters because seeing women in positions of worldwide leadership and hearing their inspired words strengthen the Church. It matters because habits of excluding women send unintended messages that have no place in our doctrine or in our community of saints.

Leaders have repeatedly stressed that women are vital in building the Kingdom, that our voices are important, that we are equal in the Church and in the sight of God. Though certain responsibilities in the Church may be differentiated according to gender, praying is not one of them. Prayer is not a function of the priesthood; women and men are equally capable of calling upon God in prayer. Barring women from praying in meetings undermines our efforts to internalize these doctrines and detracts from the main message of our faith.

I am grateful that, as of April 2013, women can pray in General Conference. With this change of policy, the wonderful doctrine of equality is more fully realized. It feels right; it feels comfortable. Of course women should pray in General Conference. What took us so long?

I believe that there are other habits of exclusion that should be carefully examined. Here are three to consider: Church policy does not permit women to be financial clerks or Sunday School presidents. And outside of official Church policy, there is an unwritten rule in some wards that women are rarely, if ever, the concluding speakers in sacrament meeting. It is not obvious to me how holding the priesthood is requisite for fulfilling any of these responsibilities.

Each of these practices has the potential to send subtle, unintended, and damaging messages. Why can't women handle the money? Perhaps women aren't as reliable with records and finances or as sound in their judgment as men are. Why don't women speak last in our worship services? Perhaps a woman's words do not carry the same weight of authority as a man's. Why can't women head the Sunday School? Perhaps women can only lead organizations that administer to women and children. Perhaps the oversight of adult scripture scholarship is outside our domain. These messages are not in harmony with my understanding of women's abilities to organize and responsibilities to testify, teach, and expound the scriptures.

I see no doctrinal reason, no practical reason, and no spiritual benefit to excluding women in these ways. Indeed, some wards have more faithful, capable women than active men. Allowing women to hold more positions of leadership that do not directly relate to functions of the priesthood would allow greater flexibility for wards and branches. Perhaps someday we will say in regards to these, "Of course. What took us so long?"

You and I have often commiserated together about how difficult it is to balance the demands of family, community, and church callings, especially with young children at home. So it is important  to make a distinction between these two sentiments:

    "I personally would like to hold [a particular position in the Church]."
    "I don't want to be disqualified from that position because of my gender."

These statements are different. I have no particular desire to be a ward financial clerk (and I dare say I have that in common with most men), or the Sunday School president, and I don't feel personally slighted if I am not the concluding speaker in a meeting. But I would rejoice if women were not barred from these roles, when their circumstances permit them to take on the responsibilities. Similarly, I would be very surprised if the majority of members of Ordain Women actually wanted to hold the demanding calling of bishop or stake president. But I am certain that they would welcome the chance to sustain a female bishop, and they would appreciate knowing that such a thing is a real possibility for the future.

Men Defining Manhood, Men Defining Womanhood

As women in the Church, we are accustomed to men presiding over our meetings, occasionally sitting in on lessons, chaperoning at Young Women's camp, and speaking at the General Women's Meeting. Men regularly instruct groups of women on many topics, including our roles as women in the Church, even though women do not instruct gatherings of men. Women's meetings and events often have one or two men present, even though the reverse is not true. We're used to this, and we don't find it remarkable. Perhaps we need to stop and think about it a bit more carefully.

I treasure my association with so many extraordinary men in the Church. I appreciate their inspired words, their sincere praise, and their perspectives on womanhood. Men and women learning from each other, each mutually seeking to please the other in healthy ways, is natural and positive. What concerns me is the abundance of counsel from men directed toward women on what it means to be a woman, with very little reciprocity. Too much emphasis on men teaching women how to be women may foster unhealthy attitudes and subtly encourage women and girls to look to men for approval, guidance, and authority as they form self-conceptions and life goals. We must wholly understand that we are important, not because of how much men value us or what men think of us, but because of who we are as humans on planet earth and daughters of God. I worry about the effect on dating and marriage as two young people enter a relationship, the man having learned from male ecclesiastical leaders how to be a man, and the woman having learned from both women and men. This concern could be addressed with a change in practice, not doctrine1.

I would like to see something more balanced. Imagine the power that could be unleashed if women, drawing on inspiration from heaven and a wealth of experience, occasionally instructed men on how best to fulfill their roles as husband, fathers, and priesthood holders. I am accustomed to congregations of women learning from words of wisdom and encouragement spoken by a man of God. But I have this other vision in my mind — a vision of a group of men sitting and listening to a woman whom they love and respect, a woman of God, in full acknowledgement of her divine calling and gifts of the Spirit. Maybe she would be teaching them about her experiences in drawing on priesthood power, or how as men, they can better assist the women of the Church, or how better to honor their roles as fathers and husbands2. I believe that a woman addressing a priesthood meeting would bring great blessings and a needed balance as men and women strive to work together and understand one another.

In Part 3, I will share my thoughts on presiding in the home and priesthood ordination.

I welcome you to turn this imaginary conversation into a real one by sharing your thoughts in the comments section.

1Of course, one can make the valid point that the men who speak to women have priesthood stewardships over their congregations; they communicate messages from God. But is there any doubt that they are speaking as part-prophet, part-man? Else why all the anecdotes about baking pies and so forth?
2When Elaine S. Dalton, General Young Women's President spoke at the October 2011 General Conference, she spent much of her talk specifically addressing fathers of daughters. I had never before heard a woman address the male membership of the Church in that way, and I was deeply moved by the experience. This should not be such a rare occurence.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Stuff I've learned watching movies and television.

Stuff I've learned watching movies and television:

1. If you have a natural gift for detective work, be careful. You and your associates will regularly stumble upon dead bodies, and your circle of friends and acquaintances will be rife with murder suspects, witnesses, and victims.

2. If a door is locked, you can easily break it down by heaving your shoulder against it. It will give way. (This works best if you're a man.)

3. Even writers, struggling artists, and bartenders can afford spacious, tastefully decorated loft apartments.

4. If you're in a relationship, lying is the primary method for heading off potential conflict with your significant other. No matter how elaborate the lie becomes and how many of your friends have to cover for you, it is preferable to engaging in direct communication with your partner.

5. If you're not in a relationship, keep in mind that you're most likely to fall in love with whomever you most dislike when you first meet him/her, provided that s/he is ravishingly good looking.

6. Hiring a fake fiance (or spouse, or boyfriend/girlfriend) is a perfectly normal thing to do, with very desirable results. In such situations, you are almost guaranteed to (actually) fall in love with the person pretending to be your romantic partner.

7. For a courtship leading to a committed relationship, three or four days is a reasonable length of time. Don't be afraid to declare your love and/or propose marriage after just a few days, especially if you and your true love have already been through a serious deception or misunderstanding that has devastated the relationship.  

Bonus tip: An airport is a good place to make a romantic entreaty. Try to time it so that you arrive just before the person you love gets on the flight that will separate you forever. If you're a few minutes too late for that, go ahead and get on the plane. You can declare yourself there, and the other passengers will enjoy the inevitable passionate kiss that results.

8. If you're about to give birth, your labor and delivery will involve a lot of screaming but will only take about ten minutes at the most. Don't worry. If the baby arrives before the midwife or doctor, friends or bystanders will do a fine job of helping out.

9. If you're a female, forget being shy or reserved. These days, spunky, strong, and adventurous is the way to go. "Quirky" is trendy too, as long as you have an impeccable sense of style and are drop dead gorgeous.

But the lesson that I have learned most thoroughly is this one:

10a. Women: If you want to have a serious, romantic relationship and be the star of your own life, you must be endowed with stunning physical beauty. Deviate from the highest standards of modern beauty and you are, at best, the comic relief or the supportive friend.

10b. Men: If you're witty and confident, you may be of any age, body shape, or face type and still find the love of your life — who will of course be a young, thin, beautiful woman.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Paul and Phoebe

This is a guest post by my sister Rosemary. It also appears on her blog

I often read the Bible on my morning subway commute. If I can get a seat early on, then I have enough time to read a couple of chapters before I have to worry about transferring trains and getting back into the jostle of hurrying commuters. I've gotten into the habit of bringing my French Bible, partly because it gives me an excuse to practice my French, partly because some of my fellow Crown Heights commuters are Caribbean francophones and I like to feel that we have a point of connection, and partly because my French Bible is lightweight with a sturdy spine—well-suited to being slung into a backpack and carried around all day.

Anyway, the other day I was finishing Paul's Epistle to the Romans, and I came across a mind-opening section: Chapter 16. This chapter doesn't have much doctrine in it; it's instead Paul's sign-off to a long-ish list of Roman church members. Although I had read them in English, the first two verses in French left me amazed. 

"Je vous recommande Phoebé, notre soeur, qui est diaconesse de l'Église de Cenchrées, afin que vous la receviez en notre Seigneur d'une manière digne des saints, et que vous l'assistiez dans les choses où elle aurait besoin de vous, car elle en a donné aide à plusieurs et à moi-même." 

My own translation is this: "I commend to you Phoebe, our sister, who is deacon of the Church in Kekhries, that you receive her in our Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you assist her in the things that she may require of you, for she has helped myself and many." The word "diaconesse" was the bombshell. How had I missed the fact that there was a female deacon in the early church? Was this a priestly calling? I wondered why Phoebe hadn't come up as an example of female leadership before, until I went home and found that the KJV names her as a 'servant' rather than 'deacon,' — a word that disguises the attention Paul gives to her with the same kind of submissive roles that I'm used to seeing assigned to women. Ever the curious etymologist, I looked in my Greek New Testament. The word was 'diakonos', a word that is the root of our present day 'deacon' and can also be translated as 'servant' or 'minister'.

After my re-reading the verse in English and then in Greek, I realized that Phoebe may not have been blessing the holy communion or performing the kind of priesthood ordinances that we moderns might think of as a 'deacon's' job. And while I am excited by the possibility of Phoebe as a priesthood holder, my excitement doesn't depend on that. Maybe to explain it I'll share another story. When I was getting ready to enter the Missionary Training Center, I got a packet in the mail with visa information, including a "minister's license." It was in Italian, and standing in the kitchen my father and I excitedly pieced together a translation of it. This is a vivid memory for me as my first stab at the Italian language, but it was also the first time I realized that in the eyes of the Italian government, I would hold the same title as the young men missionaries. I wasn't just a "sister," I was a minister. 
So now let me relate this back to the excitement of Phoebe's role. What is thrilling here is that she seems to have a distinct calling of administration and specific authority that is recognized and relied upon by Paul. So often, I feel that women are left in a mushy area of following their own spiritual promptings for the good of individual people, while their role as church officers (their callings) is downplayed. Thus their capacity to work and receive inspiration on behalf of a group is not given the chance to flourish. Even in callings that require women to work in an organizational and administrative capacity (and that's a lot of callings), I think women often feel like they're coming in the back door on inspiration — that it's not their right and responsibility to be leaders, or that because the buck always stops with the bishop (or EQ president, or stake president), their leadership doesn't really affect men at all (unless they're little boys in Primary, I guess). 

So, to sum up, I love the Phoebe story because it gives two remedies for this obstacle to women's spiritual growth: First, it names Phoebe's calling. Whether we call her a minister or a deacon, she is something. She's not just a nice lady with a soft heart who follows her instincts of goodness; she has an identifiable role. Second, Paul, as a male leader, is pointed in his recognition of her influence on both the group ('plusieurs') and himself ('moi-meme'). She's not his mother or any kind of biological or legal family member. Sometimes I think men in our church are embarrassed or feel that it's not quite proper to praise the capacities of females outside their own families. Paul has no such qualms. Paul is unashamed to point out that the woman Phoebe has succored him — he feels no need to qualify her leadership role.

So, Phoebe's role is what I want for the women of the Church. I want women to know that they have specific and needed roles to fulfill, in addition to their roles within families. I also want them to recognize that they are leaders of men, not just of other women or children (whether in an official capacity in a particular church calling or simply in personal interactions). And finally, I want men to be as clearly supportive as Paul is — giving credit to women as leaders in their words and in practice. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Part 1 of 3: Imaginary conversations with a conservative Mormon woman about feminism and the Church.

Mary Cassatt, Five O'Clock Tea
I am not a member of Ordain Women. Though I am open to the possibility of women someday receiving the priesthood, I don't see female ordination as the obvious answer to the inequalities  women face in the Church. Moreover, I have serious reservations about some of the tactics used by the Ordain Women organization. Nevertheless, I count myself among those who believe that the roles of women in the Church must continue to evolve in a way that promotes equality. I see real, solvable problems in the institutional church regarding women's authority, autonomy, and leadership.

Over the past several days, I have read many comments from women and men adamantly defending the status quo and criticizing those who advocate change. As I struggle to maintain a sense of unity with members of my church whose views are different than mine, I hear in my mind Christ's admonition, "If ye are not one, ye are not mine." I imagine myself having a conversation over a cup of herbal tea with a conservative Mormon woman, a fictional character representing many of the wonderful women I know. I imagine myself speaking honestly and without fear. Here is what I would say.

I have known you for a long time. You teach my son primary songs, you sing with me in the choir, and you sit next to me in Sunday School. You have reached out with genuine love to my non-member husband. You have been patient with my unanswerable questions. You have mourned with me during the terrible days after my father died.  You have helped sustain my faith with your love and testimony. I have seen your great capacity for empathy and understanding.

The sacrament meetings, visiting teaching appointments, Relief Society lessons, and acts of service that we have participated in side-by-side have bound us together with hundreds of ties. We have sung the same songs, read the same scriptures, and felt the same Spirit telling us that this is where we belong. I hope that we will not let our differences divide us. 

You have told me how happy and fulfilled you are as a woman in the Church. You feel respected, loved, and listened to. Those feelings are real, and I know that you're capable of deciding for yourself what makes you happy. I have heard you express frustration that church members whose views on women and the church are radically different from yours get so much press. That's a fair point, and I hope that your voice is heard. Above all, you have a strong conviction that we have living prophets on the earth today, and you sustain them without reservation. You cherish the belief that they speak for God, and that faith has blessed your life. I honor that.

As I talk about points of disagreement, my purpose is not to persuade you to adopt my paradigm, but rather to explain it clearly. I want you to see my advocacy for women's equality as coming from a place of thoughtfulness, faithfulness, and hope.

Fallibility of Leaders and Changing Doctrine

Much of our disagreement can be traced to differences in how we see prophets, leaders, and church organization. I believe that leaders of the Church, even members of the first presidency and quorum of the twelve, sometimes make mistakes. I believe that the Church is a work in progress, an imperfect approximation of God's will for His kingdom. Inspired leaders receive revelation and process it through a human filter of cultural baggage, prejudices, and preconceptions. Certain ideas that were once taught as doctrine are now de-emphasized, abandoned, and in some cases refuted.

I want you to make room for members who think like me. No, I need you to do more than that. I plead with you to understand that accepting the reality of prophetic fallibility is the only way I can make peace with church history. Acknowledging that prophets make mistakes is uncomfortable, and it is not something I do carelessly or lightly. But it is the only way that I can see past the mountain of discarded and sometimes disturbing prophetic teachings in our not-so-distant history. Please don't push people like me out of the church or marginalize our voices.

You can imagine how this belief in prophetic fallibility might influence my views on church organization and doctrine. I listen to General Conference, and it nourishes me spiritually. I strive to help and sustain my leaders. I am grateful for their service. But in my worldview, it is possible that a teaching or practice that is in conflict with my own conscience might someday change, because it might not reflect the mind of God.

This belief influences my willingness to speak out about my views, even when I sometimes disagree with church leaders. In a recent response to Ordain Women's request to attend the general priesthood meeting, church spokeswoman Jessica Moody referenced the "wonderful conversations . . . relative to women in the Church," and stated that "recent changes . . . were facilitated by the input of many extraordinary LDS women around the world." If the Church really is sincere about seeking input and encouraging productive conversation, then I want to be a part of that. And I don't see how we can have a conversation that facilitates change without actually talking about the positive changes that we would like to see.

This does not mean that I think all criticism is fair game or that all methods of protest are appropriate. I believe that any discussion of thorny issues must be thoughtful, respectful, and mediated by the Spirit. I hope that every member would follow the dictates of their own conscience in how they advocate for change.

This post is the first of three parts. Parts 2 and 3 will discuss specific issues regarding women in the Church. 

I welcome you to turn this imaginary conversation into a real one by sharing your thoughts in the comments sections.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

An early Pi Day celebration.

Since Pi Day is just around the corner, I wanted to do something Pi-related with my kids. They're so young (five and two), that I didn't know how it would work, but it was a great success! It took only a couple of minutes of preparation.

(Disclosure: This was our family home evening. It may look like there was no gospel component, but I applied the all-truth-is-spiritual loophole.)

Beforehand, I traced circles of different sizes on paper, and I got out the pipe cleaners and cutting tool. Pipe cleaners don't stretch, and they can be bent into a nice arc shape, so they're preferable to yarn.


Then, I explained that the diameter of a circle is a line that goes through the middle of the circle and cuts it in half. We found the diameters by folding the circle in half, matching up opposite "edges" of the circle. (Math people, forgive me for my loose terminology. I was trying to speak at a kindergarten level.)

I had used black permanent marker, so we were able to see through the paper. That helped us fold the circles in half nicely.

Then we cut pipe cleaners to the length of each circle's diameter.

We saw that if we wanted to wrap the pipe cleaner all the way around the circle, it wouldn't be long enough. I demonstrated bending the pipe cleaner to fit the curve of the circle. I asked, "How many lengths of pipe cleaner would it take to go all the way around the circle?" Five-year-old Johnny guessed three.


We marked how many pipe cleaner lengths it took to go all the way around the circle. Johnny predicted that we would get the same result for each circle, no matter the size. Sure enough, for each circle, we got "three plus a little." We determined that the "little bit" was less than one half. (My husband had a fun time estimating the length of the extra bit by repeatedly folding the pipe cleaner, but that was over Johnny's head.)

We called our special number pi. Johnny immediately wanted to try a new way of counting: One, two, pi, three, four, five . . . We helped him figure out that pi is actually somewhere between three and four, not two and three.

The two-year-old was just happy that the whole family was doing something involving pipe cleaners. We gave him his own circle to hold.

When we were finished, we each had a slice of pie.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Cauliflower soup with two* ingredients.

*Plus olive oil, salt, and pepper.

I'm always on the lookout for recipes that are delicious, ultra-simple, and don't use processed convenience foods 

Even if you are not a cauliflower enthusiast, try this recipe. It has a velvety, creamy texture and a surprisingly complex flavor. And look how simple it is:

      Cook an onion in olive oil on low heat. Boil it with a head of cauliflower that has been
      chopped into florets and salt to taste. Puree. Garnish with ground pepper and drizzled olive oil.

Okay, I left out a couple of details, but that's basically it. I wish that I could say I had invented it, but it's from Food52. I haven't yet tried following their directions precisely, because I try to do the bare minimum when I cook. Probably their soup is better than my version. (They add the water in stages, they use a little more water than I do, and they're more careful cooking the onion.)

Here's how I do it:

Cook a chopped or sliced onion in olive oil on low heat for a few minutes. Don't brown it. Technically, you should "sweat" the onion.

Chop a head of cauliflower into florets, and boil it in about 4 cups of water, salted to taste, along with the onion, until the cauliflower is tender.

Let it cool a little, and then puree it in batches, in a blender. Thin with water, as needed.

 Garnish with olive oil and ground pepper.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Fellow citizens of the household of God.

             Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with 
             the saints, and of the household of God.    Ephesians 2:19

Years ago, when I was still teaching high school, one of the boys on the quiz bowl team that I coached lost his father to cancer. I went to the funeral, and I brought with me several members of the team, all of them teenagers, all of them somewhere on the social fringe of their high school peers1. I felt a kinship with these young men and women. I enjoyed their enthusiasm for obscure trivia, their out-of-the-mainstream interests, and their quirky brand of academic achievement.

Our best player was a kid I'll call Steven. He had a vast expanse of knowledge, and his buzzer finger was like lightning. But he was difficult to manage: Smarter than most people he knew, he was socially awkward and sometimes abrasive or even obnoxious. On more than one occasion, I had to apologize on his behalf to the other coaches at competitions.

Steven came from an evangelical Christian family who attended a mega-church just down the road from the high school. When we walked into the Presbyterian church where the funeral was held, he commented on how much he liked hearing the organ that was playing. In his church, he told me, they were accompanied by a worship band instead.

The funeral service was lovely, filled with sorrow, hope, and with the joy of Christ. I was pleased to be there with these teenagers, who were respectful and uncharacteristically solemn as they showed support for their friend.

Then came the moment when something barely perceptible happened, something that was almost nothing and yet left an indelible imprint on my mind. The congregation stood to sing "Amazing Grace," a song I love and usually sing with as much gusto as is appropriate for the given situation. The other members of the team sang inaudibly or not at all, but Steven knew the words, and he sang the melody in a clear, thin voice. This was my song, and this was his song too. We stood shoulder to shoulder, an Evangelical teenager and his Mormon quiz bowl coach, singing a song about Jesus, singing about sin, redemption, hope, grace. There was no trace of abrasiveness in the boy standing next to me. In that fleeting moment, I felt that we were spiritually linked as brother and sister.

Certainly, I have sung hymns of praise with non-Mormons many times before and since, and I don't quite know why this particular moment seemed so significant. But years later, the memory is still something of a reference point for me. In the intervening years, I made a conscious decision to interpret the Biblical phrase "body of Christ" as including all of Christ's followers, not just members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have tried to be open to further divine glimpses of spiritual unity. My efforts are modest. Once, when I had moved to a new neighborhood, my Baptist neighbor invited me to join a non-denominational prayer group held in her home. I was too shy to try it; Mormons don't really do that kind of thing. Only much later did I fully appreciate the kindness of that inclusive gesture, coming from someone who probably found my beliefs strange, at the very least.

But there have been small successes. Reading personal stories of faith from those outside my church  have helped me appreciate the varied realities of lived religion. Reading Bible commentary from non-LDS sources has deepened my understanding of the scriptures. The last time I prepared a sacrament meeting talk, I sent a facebook message to an old college friend of my husband's, now an Episcopal priest, asking him if he had any thoughts that I might use in my Easter Sunday sermon. I was enriched by his insights, and I was touched by his readiness to help me contribute to my Mormon meeting. Another time, also around Easter, I made a silent and heartfelt effort to invite the Holy Spirit as the Jehovah's Witnesses testified on my doorstep of Jesus Christ and His resurrection. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I thought that as we shook hands before they left, I sensed an extra measure of warmth in their hands and faces.

As I discover my Christian brothers and sisters, I feel almost as though I am being being reunited with family members separated from me at birth, family members I didn't know I had. We have different traditions, different vocabularies, and different ideas. Yet looking at their faces, I see that we are of the same family, the same parents.

I am occasionally taken aback by the barrage of criticism — sometimes false, sometimes devastatingly accurate — directed at my faith by other Christians. I am well-versed in the various theories on whether Mormons are saved2, and I have heard all the arguments for why we are not Christians. But they still sting. In fairness, I have also heard plenty of cringe-inducing remarks made by Mormons about other Christian churches. I hope that my church will continue to soften its rhetoric about other religious traditions.

A recent criticism of Mormonism from one segment of the Christian community has prompted me to reexamine that longing for unity that I recognized in myself years ago. Given the criticism from other Christians that will probably never go away and our substantive theological differences, what kind of unity am I really seeking? What sort of oneness can I hope to achieve?

I have come to see that I am not interested in solidarity for political causes. Nor do I want to smooth over doctrinal differences. And though it would be gratifying, what I want most is not validation from the religious community of my credentials as a genuine Christian. What do I want? I want to learn from followers of Christ of all denominations, from their devotion, their charity, and their scholarship. And I want to stand with them, mutually rejoicing in something that we share in the deepest recesses of our souls.

Surely, the household of God has room enough for that.


1In later years, things changed. At one point, we had the homecoming king on our team, along with a soccer player and an aspiring fashionista. Go figure.

2Once, I stumbled upon an internet treatise on whether Glenn Beck was "saved." The basic argument went as follows: Glenn Beck had a wonderful understanding of the atonement. Therefore, he is probably not a true-believing Mormon. Therefore, he might be saved. (Salvation is not possible for fully believing Mormons.)