In Defense of Trek & Pioneer Day

I am a part of the minority among progressive Mormons (or perhaps actually, a part of the silent majority?) that is pro-Trek and pro-Pioneer Day. Here I strive to make that case and share some thoughts on ways of honoring and celebrating both that more responsibly, thoughtfully, and inspiringly engage with our Mormon heritage. 

On TREK

Trek to me feels like a mix of ritual and pilgrimage, a potentially powerful way of creating an egalitarian, group ritual. Not all members have pioneer blood relatives, but all Mormons have a pioneer religious heritage, simply by being Mormons. The pioneer ethic and mythos is embedded in how much of Mormonism manifests and I think that we can all honor that, whether our own particular ancestors crossed the plains or not. 

Trek, at its best, makes physical the sacrifices and toil and work and sweat of true religion in a way that I find powerful. Does a few days hiking compare to the true trek across the plains? Of course not. But trek doesn’t need to be the same experience as the literal pioneers to have value.

Caution and safety should be practiced at all times. Trek should probably be arduous, but not life-threatening. Everyone should be well-watered and cared for, with injuries receiving the best care modern medicine has to offer. Suffering for suffering’s sake is not the goal. 

Wearing “traditional” clothing feels to me like a valuable part of the ritual element of the experience, though the standards should definitely be enforced more equally across genders, since in my experience women and girls that participate have much more expected of them than men and boys, who look more or less like they always do. Creating or finding the clothing could be incorporated into the group preparations for the process, which could equalize this and add meaning. Also, all should be allowed to wear any period clothing, regardless of their gender. Period cross-dressing allowed. And again, be smart and responsible with this. Don’t force people to wear so many layers that they overheat. 

Trek should help us remember the sacrifice that our early Saints were willing to make, to realize what true persecution is and that we don’t face it anymore, to think about what we are willing to do for God and each other. Trek should be a deeply communal experience. Helping us reconnect with one another. A ritual that reminds us that Zion is ALL of us, that we are saved together or not at all. That if I neglect my fellow comrades in Christ, that I too am damned. Most of our rituals are focused on our own individual efforts, which can blind us to our responsibility to each other. Trek ideally helps rectify that, forcing us to work together, some doing more work than others, from all according to their ability and to each according to their needs. 

On PIONEER DAY

Pioneer Day, for me, does something similar. Yet, I think has even more potential for honoring a wide, diverse array of Saints and ways of being Mormon. Pioneer Day is a piece of a possible Mormon Liturgical Calendar. We don’t really *have* a Liturgical calendar within Mormonism and it’s something that I envy about other Christian traditions and making a peculiarly Mormon one seems to require the inclusion of Pioneer Day.

Much of the rational for celebrating and honoring Pioneer Day is tied to the reasons I feel that we should participate in the ritual of Trek. 

I also think that Pioneer Day allows for a uniquely honest and frank engagement with elements of Mormon history that are often neglected–colonial and racist elements relating to the demonization and displacement of indigenous people throughout Utah and the West.

A true and valuable celebration of Pioneer Day must reckon with the fact that the grit and commitment and dedication of our Mormon ancestors happened alongside and simultaneously with atrocities, perpetuated in the name of those same good attributes. 

I’m not interested in the Pioneer Day celebrations that function as sequels to the Fourth of July, with full-throated Americanism (particularly since such celebrations seem to ignore that the pioneers were literally fleeing America, but whatever). 

This sort of honoring of the day should also come with a decrease in the tendency to revere individuals that have “pioneer stock”, as we recognize the messiness and troublesome realities of that stock. 

I also envision a way of honoring Pioneer Day that incorporates the many other ways that people can be and are pioneers. Converts, first to receive degrees, the still fraught and pioneer-grit-filled experiences of people of color, the difficult and complicated lives of queer Mormons, and others. Stories like that of my great-grandma who was one of the first women to earn a Physics degree from BYU. Like that of Jane Manning James and Elijah Able. Like that of Chieko Okazaki. 

Pioneer Day should honor the past, while doing our part to heal the wounds that our ancestors caused and to reckon with the violence that is at the heart of the reality of Deseret. Pioneer Day should also look throughout our history and into the present to find and tell the stories of those that continue to embody the best of that pioneer spirit. 

The day doesn’t need to be all doom and gloom. Celebrations of the particular quirkiness of Mormon culture also strike me as valuable. I think there are things about Mormonism and our pioneer heritage that are worth celebrating and Pioneer Day feels like a great time to do that. 

Perhaps also because I think we can weave in the experiences of pioneers like Levi Savage that strongly resonate with me and serve to highlight the complexity of faith that some of these individuals had. That being a pioneer wasn’t always about obedience or knowing with every fiber of your being, but was about a recognition of the beauty of community and the value that each and every one of us can bring to that community. 

I long for ways to bring Mormonism out of the chapel and the temple and into my day-to-day life, ways that I can create communal and individual and familial rituals that allow me to connect with God in peculiarly Mormon ways out in the world. Pioneer Day and Trek are the beginnings of creating such a practice for me. May we work together to honor the grit and sacrifice of our pioneer heritage and to remember and reckon with the complexity of that legacy and the violence and harm that was done. 

Queering Mormonism

One of the most pressing areas for continuing revelation in Institutional Mormonism is surrounding LGBTQ+ (grouped under the umbrella term “queer” for the remainder of this piece) Saints. Conflicting messages are being sent and have been sent the entirety of my adult life to my queer comrades in Christ. We desperately need a more robust queer Mormon theology. 

Luckily, people are working towards the reality of this (you can read two of the most notable pieces to my mind in this arena here from Blaire Ostler on Queer Polygamy and here from Taylor Petrey on a post-heterosexual theology). Blaire also happens to be working on a book all about this very subject that should be available in the coming months. 

I can’t create that theology right here and now. But I can lay some groundwork for the discussions that we should all be having to bring this to pass. 

Why Queer Mormonism?

Revelation is a communal project and I hope we can all play a meaningful part in the process of building a vision of Zion that is welcoming for all God’s children, including our queer comrades in Christ. 

I believe that Mormon theology can be and is inherently inclusive. The Mormonism that is currently found and taught in the mainstream Institutional Church is not. It excludes queer relationships and leaves the lived experience of many queer people unacknowledged and unexplained. The more extreme iterations of these teachings (which are even expressed at times by members of Church leadership in official capacities, like with Pres. Oaks at a BYU-H devotional recently) alienate queer people and leave no space for them in our pews. 

I find this appalling. 

The Body of Christ, and the Institutional Church is one manifestation of that Body, needs all of us. We cannot afford to cut people off. We may be losing our leg, our eyes, our kidneys, our mind, or even our heart. 

If we queer Mormonism, we can open our arms again to our queer comrades in Christ. We can make space for them on the pews, we can begin to do the long, hard work of atoning for the pain and suffering that they have experienced at the hands of the Institution and others in it, whether that pain was intentional or otherwise. 

Our queer comrades in Christ need a spiritual home in Mormonism that welcomes them and we need them, or Zion will never be whole or complete, or as we’ve been commanded — perfect.

What Does “Queering Mormonism” Even Mean?

“Queering” Mormonism is taken from academic slang that we used in the English department at BYU (and I assume is used elsewhere). Essentially, it refers to using queer theory to examine and interrogate Mormonism. Queer, in addition to being an adjective and sometimes a noun, can also be a verb, and that’s what’s happening here. 

I’m also riffing on the title of a recent book in Mormon Studies that presents a series of essays on a different, but also urgent, theological and cultural project within Mormonism: Decolonizing Mormonism. Much as that book argues that we must decolonize Mormonism, I believe we must queer Mormonism. 

Where Do We Start?

The beginning. Petrey’s piece does some of this work. Imagining a queer reading of the creation narrative as contained in Mormonism that would lay a different foundation for Mormonism. The danger in some of these efforts is that given the male-dominated space of Mormon scripture, doctrine, and theology, it may be easy to create a gay theology, but not necessarily a fully queer one. 

We must always be on the lookout for gaps in our inclusivity as we go about this work. 

Performing queer readings of scripture (we can draw on robust queer biblical readings and go further, including exclusive Mormon scripture). 

Removing heteronormative and exclusive doctrines and teachings. 

Listening to a wide variety of queer Mormon voices 

Working to make lived Mormonism, as well as the theology, inclusive and welcome for queer Mormons

Dismantling sexist and patriarchal elements of the Church

Decolonizing Mormonism

Those are just some basic areas to work within. We need all sorts of voices contributing to this discussion from the most radical to more moderate and even somewhat conservative ones (all with a recognition of the humanity of Queer Mormons and the need to reinterpret and seek revelation on new theological insights to bring Queer Mormons into the fold). 

What Does a Queer Mormon Theology Look Like?

I believe that the center of a Queer Mormon theology is found in reinterpreting the “family” that is central to God’s plan as the human family and the diversity of familial relations that that encompasses. As we do this, I believe we must move beyond gender essentialism, which allows for a wider array of acceptable life paths to exist fully within the Church. 

This would naturally come with a need to re-evaluate and reconceive of Priesthood. Doing so should come with a de-coupling of priesthood and administrative-ecclesiastical authority. As well as rethinking the sealing ordinance, much in the ways that Blaire describes (which to me seems closer to some of the ideals at the heart of Joseph’s vision for the ordinance). 

I believe that an ethic of sexual care would need to be a part of this. A new Law of Chastity, rooted in consent, care, collaboration, creativity, and communion. 

A queer Mormon theology depends on a strong community and shifts the core unit from “nuclear families” to local communities. This allows for single Mormons to be more fully integrated into the Church and strengthens our commitment to each other and to truly being a part of the Body of Christ. 

All of this requires re-thinking our understanding of God. We already have divine roles for Men (Heavenly Father) and Women (Heavenly Mother) and a little revelation and theological creativity, combined with Joseph Smith’s teachings of a “Council of Gods” could help shift us from a Man+Woman Union as the central, building block of eternity to one that places Councils or Communities at the center, recognizing a broader diversity of voices than just two. 

None of this insists on destroying marriage or robbing couples of the value and importance they place on their marriages. It simply helps integrate them into a larger community. 

That to me seems like the root of a queer Mormon theology. But I’d love to hear what you think, about any and all of this.

“Lord, I Believe, Help Thou My Unbelief”: Doubt, Belief, and the Paradox of Keeping the Faith

Note: An effort to recreate the talk that I gave using the quotes contained herein as a base on 21 July 2019, in the Provo UT 32nd Married Student Ward. 

INTRO

If you were here the last time that Cec and I spoke, about a year and a half ago, you know that we have very different strategies when it comes to titling our talks. Hers is once again called, “church talk” and mine is “‘Lord, I Believe, Help Thou Mine Unbelief’: Doubt, Belief, and the Paradox of Keeping the Faith”. So let’s begin with the verse referenced in that title, Mark 9:24:

“And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”

For the past seven years or so, and on and off since I was 16, my faith has been this sort of faith–a faith simultaneously composed of doubt and belief, that the two coexist in varying degrees and amounts at any given time. The past few years have been fairly stable, but those early years just after my mission were hard. 

I felt as though the faith that I had as a missionary and a young man in the church had died. That it was gone and with it, my sense of certainty and purpose and morality. Yet, I think now that that death was needed. After all, as Christians, we’re in the Resurrection business. Paul teaches over and over throughout the epistles that we must die to be born again in Christ. 

Rachel Held Evans, an Evangelical author that I find inspiring and powerful who I mentioned in a testimony a few months ago when she unexpectedly passed away, wrote of a Church experience that:

“It was a death, but it was a good death.”

Searching for Sunday, 229

I believe that we can make the inevitable death of our faith, a good death. Or as Mary sings in Rob Gardner’s Lamb of God:

“Hope did not die here, but here was given.”

“Here is Hope”

Not all deaths are inherently good deaths and not all give us hope. But they can. I hope that I can help you find hope in the midst of your faith dying, as it dies again and again. That your faith too can be reborn, as mine has been and continues to be, for the work is not done. 

BELONGING

The foundational idea that has helped me to keep the faith, is the idea of belonging. Particularly as Brene Brown explores the idea and contrasts it with “fitting in”. She writes that: 

“One of the biggest surprises in this research was learning that fitting in and belonging are not the same thing, and, in fact, fitting in gets in the way of belonging. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are: Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life, 25

Much of my experience at Church was that I didn’t fit in, that I didn’t belong. I thought because I believed different things or because I looked a little different that I couldn’t really be a part of the organization. I’ve always felt a little different than others and never felt a strong sense of community at Church, though that was at its peak in YSA wards in Provo, in the years immediately after my mission.

Not only did I experience all the pressures that come for almost all people in a YSA ward, but I layered on top of those this sense of confusion and frustration that I couldn’t really be who I was. I thought that everyone else knew for sure that all these things were true, that everyone had different political beliefs from me, that no one else had questions. That everyone else was dumb and judgmental, which ironically made me dumb and judgmental.  

As I started to be vulnerable and authentic at Church, sharing my own real expression of belief and doubt in testimony meeting and comments, I started to discover that I was wrong. All sorts of people came up to me and would thank me for being open and honest, for saying what they’d always felt and never felt able to say. I felt welcomed. Truly. For ME.

And I felt able to grant others that same space. Brene Brown describes this phenomenon like this:

“When we don’t give ourselves permission to be free, we rarely tolerate that freedom in others. We put them down, make fun of them, ridicule their behaviors, and sometimes shame them. We can do this intentionally or unconsciously. Either way the message is, ‘Geez man. Don’t be so uncool.’”

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are: Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life, 123

When I was unwilling to extend myself the grace to be real and authentic at Church, I turned that pain and suffering into ridicule of everyone else. And perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, as I refused to fit in, as I decided to stop trying to be like everyone else and to bring my whole self, difference and everything, to the table, I was suddenly much more comfortable with everyone else doing the same. 

Fast and Testimony meeting went from one of the worst, most painful, frustrating Sundays to consistently some of my favorite Sundays. If I want to be accepted and loved and welcomed for who I am, in all my weirdness and fringey-believing doubt or doubting-belief, then I need to extend that same grace and acceptance and love to those with faith that looks different from mine. 

Interlude: Epistemic Humility

For me, this idea is encapsulated in “epistemic humility”, which is a fancy, academic jargon-y way of saying, “recognizing that you’re wrong”. I believe that I am wrong about all sorts of things. Just like you. Everyone believes that everyone else is wrong about at least some things, and in some cases many things, but we have to believe that about ourselves as well. 

It could be easy to simply dismiss everything as unknowable and to reach a state of apathy and passivity, but I think that’s misguided. I recognize that I am likely wrong about all sorts of things, but I believe that my beliefs currently lead me to be a good person that helps others. 

ACCOUNTABILITY/RESPONSIBILITY/CLAIMING/INDIVIDUAL

I believe we must couple this sense of humility with claiming our own spiritual authority. 

Claiming our spiritual authority I think is often described in terms that actually describe spiritual autonomy, that people want to believe what they want and to choose the consequences. To me, spiritual authority is believing what you believe to be true and facing the consequences. I don’t see this as a competition with prophetic authority, after all, when Moses was confronted by someone who believed that he should be concerned with the Israelites prophesying, Moses responded:

“Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”

Numbers 11:29

Moses wanted all his people to be filled with the Spirit, to be prophets, to claim their own spiritual authority. And if Moses wasn’t worried about it, then I shouldn’t be either. 

To claim your spiritual authority is not only to seek revelation and to do what you feel God calls you to do, but also to face the consequences of that course of action, whatever they may be. If you aren’t willing to face the consequences of your beliefs, what good are they?

Esther is a powerful example of claiming spiritual authority and maintaining epistemic humility. When Mordecai comes to her and tells her of the plot that Haman put into motion to kill all the Jews, she says to Mordecai:

“Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day : I also and my maidens will fast like-wise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law : and if I perish, I perish.”

Esther 4:16

Esther is willing to die for her beliefs. She doesn’t know if what she’s going to do will save her or her people, but she believes in it. She believes so strongly that she’s willing to put her own life on the line. I don’t know about you, but my convictions have never been tested quite that much, dying for my beliefs is not really in the realm of possibility. 

I’m also struck by the fact that Esther maintains this conviction even though God is entirely absent from the text. The Book of Esther is the only book of the Bible where God is not mentioned, not even once. Esther is living in the silences that I, and we all, experience. Yet, she believes. She sticks to her belief, in the face of uncertainty, in the silence from God, unto death.

Interlude: Weakness is Strength

I wonder if we misunderstand what strength means in the Kingdom of God. Ether reminds us that the Lord taught:

“… if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

Ether 12:27

This teaching seems to be in line with what Christ taught us about the Kingdom of Heaven–that it’s a topsy-turvy place, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Where it’s not like an empire or a palace or a political entity, but a mustard seed and yeast. 

The sort of faith that holds doubt and belief together that I experience may sound or look weak, but perhaps it’s exactly the sort of strength that God is looking for?

The Lord, importantly, instructs us to come to Him, and that takes us to the necessity of community, that we cannot isolate ourselves and be made strong. 

COMMUNITY

Rachel Held Evans describes the nature of and power of community and Church like this:

“We expect a trumpet and a triumphant entry, but as always, God surprises us by showing up in ordinary things: in bread, in wine, in water, in words, in sickness, in healing, in death, in a manger of hay, in a mother’s womb, in an empty tomb. Church isn’t some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, Pay attention, this is holy ground; God is here.”

Searching for Sunday, 258

I’ve felt this. Here. With all of you. 

Often Church is kinda boring and mundane, but every once in awhile, in the midst of that quotidian mundanity, God is here. 

As we wrestle with the scriptures, share our struggles, ask our questions, air our doubts and concerns, strive toward the light, strain to see through the glass darkly, this ground and these carpeted walls are made holy. God is here. 

The need for community meets epistemic humility and spiritual authority in my favorite quote from Joseph Smith:

“And if we go to hell, we will turn the devils out of doors and make a heaven of it. Where this people are, there is good society.” 

Joseph Smith was willing to die and go to hell for his beliefs. That’s how open to being wrong he was. That he’d end up in hell. He was willing to face eternal consequences for his beliefs. 

Yet, he maintained hope and faith in the power and goodness of his beliefs and the beliefs that he shared with his fellow Saints. He would kick out those devils and transform hell into heaven. 

CONCLUSION

As we go throughout life we often pass through times where God feels distant or absent or silent, where the glass we see through is darker than usual, where we wonder how we fit in or where we belong. 

The words of General Princess Leia Organa guide me through those moments:

“Hope is like the sun. If you only believe it when you see it, you’ll never make it through the night.”

Darkness and silence are part of mortality. But they don’t erase the light that we’ve seen. 

“For I, [like Paul,] am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” –Romans 8:38-39

No matter what you believe or don’t believe, what you do or don’t do, nothing can separate you from the Love of God. And if we strive to divide ourselves to build walls to deny others our love, then we are trying to do what even God will not. If God’s love is never denied us, then who are we to deny others of our love?

I don’t know much. I believe much. I hope for quite a bit. But I know that God lives, that God loves each and every one of us and I say with Brother Joe that if I go to hell, I’ll turn the devils out and make a heaven of it because where you are, there is good society. 

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

On Being an Ace Mormon Man

Occasionally I see the idea posited that the Church or Mormonism or some variation thereof wants people to be asexual. And I wince every time.

It’s tricky because there are definitely zones of crossover between a typical asexual experience (based on my own life and learning about the experiences of other aces from conversations and reading) and the “Ideal” Mormon experience (as I understand it). And yet, there’s something a little troubling implied in this assertion and in my experience it’s just not really true on the whole.

Asexuality is one of the lesser understood queer experiences (for a variety of factors: less representation, less systemic oppression, easier to blend into society, the label evokes bacteria, it describes an absence rather than a different presence, etc.). So, I think generally those that share this idea do so with good intentions. But to more accurately and compassionately describe what we mean, we can do better for each other and particularly for our ace comrades in Christ.

THE CROSSOVER

The main area of crossover between an ace experience and the “ideal” Mormon one occurs before 16. Dating is a taboo in Mormonism before turning 16, which for me was a piece of cake. I didn’t even like dating when I turned 16. Or ever really (but those reasons are more complicated than just my asexuality).

While kids in my ward were having boyfriends and girlfriends (which I think most would agree is against the intention of the “Dating” guidelines in For the Strength of the Youth, which is one of the standards for young adults, and some would argue everyone, but that’s a conversation for another day), I was still trying to figure out what these “crushes” were that everyone was talking about.

I’ve written a little about this elsewhere, but Law of Chastity lessons as a kid were easy. Not a problem at all. I was honestly baffled by what was wrong with all the other young men in my ward, who talked about making out with people all the time. But, I chalked it up to my own superior righteousness or something (I know, I know).

For those years, being ace was great. And definitely lined up with the ideal. I had zero interest in girls, boys, porn, masturbation, kissing, dating, and all of that. Golden.

Things broke down a bit when I was 16 because I wasn’t interested in dating, which was definitely expected and also encouraged. Lessons also started to shift a bit here to lay the groundwork for the differences in a typical ace experience and the ideal Mormon experience.

At BYU, dating was very encouraged, but also not (I was in a freshman ward, living in Helaman Halls, so casual dating was encouraged, but the serious “marriage is impending” dating was not so encouraged). Then I was on my mission, where the Church would LOVE it if everyone was ace for those 18 to 24 months. Missionaries are expected to focus entirely on missionary work and not to have any romantic relationships (and generally seem to struggle with that to varying degrees), so I’m sure if the Church could flip a switch that made all missionaries ace, but strictly for the duration of their missions, they’d be all over it.  

Once I got home, everything began to fall apart.

THE DIFFERENCE

You see, Mormonism has a complicated relationship with sex. There are fierce boundaries placed around it that determine when it is acceptable or not (rooted in heteronormative patriarchy), but sex, within marriage, is next to godhood.

Loads of Mormon discussions of sex are absolutely dangerously shame-y for sex outside of hetero-marriages, but they also elevate that married sex to celestial heights. People talk about God being present (setting aside how weird that is to me) and there’s quite a bit of stuff within Mormonism that praises the body and the importance of bodies that sometimes leads to the assertion that sex persists in heaven (according to some Church leaders only in the Celestial Kingdom, the only place where people will actually have genitalia).

All of this works to raise sex specifically to unbelievable heights.

I didn’t get it.

I had zero interest in sex, except from like a curiosity perspective.

I started to wonder if something was wrong with me, not just because the entire world was bombarding me with messages about sex being The Best, but because to be righteous and holy and good I felt like I needed to want and to eventually have sex. Which I was utterly ambivalent about.

I can only speak to my particular experience as a man within Mormonism, but there was absolutely an expectation and implication that I would be the driver and initiator of relationships, and likely, sexual experiences (all the way from kissing to sex). Now, some of this is imported from elsewhere and is by no means unique to Mormonism, but I had the impression that as a man, I needed to have some kind of sex drive, some like push for sex and that part of growing up was mastering it. That I was lacking because I never felt that. That I was not truly worthy or masculine because I had no desire for sex and that somehow I couldn’t ever really be godly without it? Like, that the desire needed to be present to be tamed and that without it being there I could never tame it and therefore, never prove my worthiness. Not to mention all the other stuff about true men being these sorta healthier expressions of a James Bond-esque charm and sex appeal (and sex drive).

Some of these expectations are different for women within Mormonism, so their experience will likewise differ.

Obviously, I did get married and I have a kid, and in that way do still fit the Mormon Ideal. But sex as this divine experience wasn’t a driver for either of those.

Mormonism doesn’t want aces. There is little space within Mormonism for the adult ace experience. Not all aces want to get married and some may want to but only within a relationship where they can truly be themselves (not necessarily with another ace person, though that’s definitely one option. But mixed-orientation marriages are complicated and from my reading have very low success rates, though no idea on the particulars for mixed-orientation marriages involving an ace partner).

The ace experience challenges the family-centric nature of the Church in a way that even same-sex marriages don’t (not to say that the ace experience is more oppressed within Mormonism because it’s absolutely not, just that it seems potentially easier to maintain Mormonism’s emphasis on family and marriage while including queer marriages than ace individuals that can’t or don’t want to be married).

TROUBLING IMPLICATIONS

I mentioned up top that I see troubling implications in the assertion that Mormonism or the Church wants people to be asexual. Some of what I meant by that is present in how I walk through “The Differences”, but other bits aren’t. So, here we go.

A quick clarification that responds to some of the implications I see in that assertion is that asexuality does NOT equal celibacy. Celibacy describes a condition of sexual activity and asexuality refers to a sexual orientation and the accompanying attraction, or lack thereof as may be more accurate. Some aces are celibate and happily so, others are unhappily celibate, and still others are not celibate. Often discussions of asexuality outside the ace community blur the distinctions between the two. Certainly, Mormonism would love for all unmarried Mormons to be celibate, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Mormonism wants people to be asexual.

The next troubling idea is tied up in how this discussion of Mormonism wanting people to be ace is wrapped up in conversations about Mormonism being sexually repressive. The implication then is that asexuality is the same as sexual repression and that Mormonism is responsible for my asexuality. Frankly, I think that’s erasive of my identity and bullshit.

Mormonism absolutely has sexually repressive elements, but as I’ve laid out, to claim that it is completely sexually repressive is misguided and, I think, untrue.

This line of argumentation also implies that Mormonism caused my asexuality AND that if we could rid the world of such sexually repressive rhetoric all people could live more fully and authentically. Essentially, this implicitly argues that I would not be ace without Mormonism AND that I (and other aces) could live a better life without my asexuality, that I’m actually *something else*, but that the sexually repressive ideas within Mormonism forced me into asexuality.

This is offensive and, I believe, untrue.

I’m not going to argue that Mormonism has no influence on my sexuality because that’s a fool’s errand. But to make it solely responsible?

That erases my own lived experience and strips me of any sense of autonomy, not to mention seems totally removed from empiric evidence. There’d be a hell of a lot more aces around if that were the case.

Even if Mormonism were fully responsible for my asexuality, if I choose to identify that way, that decision should be supported. Regardless of how it happened, my lived experience is that of being ace and is valid and good and brings value to the world. My Queerness, including asexuality, isn’t good because it’s “natural” or because I was “born this way”, but because it is Good, in and of itself.

Let’s be a bit more careful as we talk about each other. And remember that my Asexuality, my Queerness, goes unacknowledged by Institutional Mormonism, that my sexuality doesn’t even exist for the Institutional Church (for better and for worse), that my identity like many other queer identities is erased in the silence. (In many ways this is far preferrable to the rhetoric and teachings that surround more mainstream queer identities, but is a different sort of challenge.)

Remember that my Asexuality—my Queerness—is of God, Divine, and Eternal. Sure, it is undeniably shaped by my experiences in Mormonism and the world broadly, but it is so much more than that.

If Truth Were a Child: REVIEWED

George B. Handley’s If Truth Were a Child: Essays is a deliberate and measured expression of lived Mormonism. The book resonated with me quite a bit, which is not that surprising given the shared, broad humanistic elements that color both Handley’s and my faith. The essays’ measured quality is rarely shaken, though there are a few moments peppered throughout the book, where Handley’s frustration with or distaste for a particular idea or practice or disposition comes through a bit more forcefully.

I found the whole collection worth reading, framing ideas in ways that were often similar to my own conception, but using language that I’d lacked, as well as occasionally providing some provocation for the certainty and zeal that I bring to some of the hottest topics in Mormondom. I may still believe that that zeal is justified, but Handley’s work calls for some introspection and epistemic humility that I appreciate and think we’d all do well to follow a bit more closely.

The guiding thesis of Handley’s religious life, and life generally along with the core beliefs that inform the entirety of the essays, I find embodied in the third essay in the collection, “On Criticism, Compassion, and Charity”.

The essay posits that a life of true discipleship balances those three titular principles. I found traces of Eugene England and Bruce C. Hafen (as well as some A.O. Scott) in this essay and it resonated strongly with my own approach to discipleship.

I was struck by Handley’s articulation of charity, where he states that:

“[Charity] recognizes there is a gap between our thoughts and God’s thoughts that we must seek to overcome by a perpetual search for more truth.”

pg. 37

The first part of the phrase draws our attention to what we lack as we interact with the divine and sets up the epistemic humility that characterizes much of Handley’s work. There’s a constant sense of checking himself, and the certainty of others, against the reality of recognizing the gap between what we think and what God thinks. I find this valuable, though I do still have a few other convictions that I personally am drawn to (though perhaps some of that is my relative youth in comparison to Handley’s experience).

The second part of this phrase pushes us to constantly learn and thirst after further light and knowledge and sets up one of Handley’s pre-occupations that colors the next two essays in the collection more explicitly and hang around the background of everything that Handley writes here.

I find myself challenged and motivated by the way that Handley describes epistemic humility as a drive to learn more, that our recognition of how little we know and understand should guide us in the pursuit of more and more truth (including the truths of the lived experiences of those around us, as Handley is always interested in how our discipleship frames and energizes our relationships with those around us).

This concern is clearly expressed in one of the lines from the next essay, “A Poetics of Restoration”, in a way that to me is perhaps the thesis of Handley’s work:

“We must resist, in other words, the temptation of assuming that it matters more to be or think right than to do good.”

pg. 64

As someone with an intellectual bent, I often feel this temptation. Or more that if I, and others, simply thought right I, we, would do good. Which is probably some side effect of a certain Boyd K Packer quote from Preach My Gospel.

Handley doesn’t delve too much into the relationship between thinking and doing good, but does consistently come back to a lived, practical sort of faith, rather than a thought, theoretical one. I appreciate the pragmatism of Handley’s work, even if I am sometimes wanting something more wild and cosmic in my search for the transcendent.

As Handley describes this poetics of Restoration (using language that I found familiar and comfortable, but could be mildly unfamiliar to those outside of advanced study in the humanities), I was again struck by how he takes a theoretical concept that I love about the Restoration (that Mormonism encompasses all truth regardless of its source) and once again ties it to the practical, lived faith experience of individuals in the pews:

“a poetics of restoration that seeks to find the reasons for inclusion of all God’s children rewards our leap of faith with a return to, not a dissipation of, the foundations of our religious identity, refreshed and restored in profoundly new ways.”

pg. 79

I LOVE this.

I love the way that seeking truth and deeper understanding is the way to expanding the bounds of our religious community.

I love that this greater understanding returns us to the foundations of our religious identity (that has been my experience as I have and continue to experience my own faith remodel, that many term a “faith crisis”).

I love the way this reframes the Restoration as continual and that the foundations of that very Restoration may be “refreshed and restored” as we learn more. That we reimagine and re-understand the significance of the past because of the present. There was something very Adam Miller in Future Mormon about Handley’s work here.

I dig it (though I am perhaps less optimistic about institutions and tend to be less generous, you could say less charitable, in my assessment of them than Handley is throughout the collection).

Handley models some ways in which we can live and embody this general poetics of the Restoration that he describes in the tenth and penultimate chapters of the collection that focus on how to read scripture. The tenth essay, “On the Moral Risks of Reading Scripture”, is phenomenal and offers a beautiful articulation of what I have been striving toward with my scripture reading for the past few years.

I love Handley’s framing of reading scripture as taking “moral risks”. It imbues the whole endeavor with excitement and stakes in a way that I often find it lacking. And obviously as someone with two English degrees and about to embark on a third, I think we don’t talk enough as a community about good, deep reading habits.

To the meat of the essay, where Handley describes succinctly the two moral risks in tension:

“We risk self-deluding idol worship—worshipping the god of our imagination—on one hand, and we risk self-exposure to the piercing eye of God on the other. There is no escape from these risks. We must be willing also to admit we have been wrong—wrong about God and wrong about ourselves.”

pg. 198

Wow.

Good stuff.

Scripture is one of the key places we learn about God and in that learning, learn about ourselves. Handley places that front and center here. Scripture is the text of our relationship with the divine and it is through careful, close reading of that text that we come to better understand God and ourselves because we better understand that relationship.

The criticism, compassion, and charity of the third essay return here, as Handley presents a view of what it means to read scripture faithfully:

“To read scripture in faith is, in the end, to believe in the possibility that all our broken readings might somehow be made whole once all the pages of the sealed book have finally been opened.”

pg. 209

This idea of faithful reading as the making whole of our broken readings echoes to me ideas of Paul and the Body of Christ, as well as Handley’s earlier discussion of the poetics of the Restoration. We must first recognize that our readings, our efforts, our lives will inevitably fall short and that in the end, we believe that some wholeness will be found.

My broken readings feel a little more whole, as I’ve encountered and wandered the halls of Handley’s mind and soul in these pages. I hope to better embody the spirit of generosity, the epistemic humility, and the unquenching thirst for truth that I see here in my own discipleship.

For those in search of a pragmatic, grounded, deeply measured faith, Handley offers ideas worth engaging.

Mormonism’s Three Churches

Many discussions about Mormonism are frustrating to me because of the vagueness of the phrase “The Church.” I think there are at least three ways that “The Church” is used, which overlap and intersect, but also have distinct qualities and features. I’m focusing on different bodies of people can be understood to be “The Church” rather than some of the other ways that the phrase is used to refer to the culture and teachings and ideologies of those bodies. That is also a necessary discussion, but to me is more tied to the ongoing and, for me, rarely productive conversation surrounding the definition of “doctrine”

All that said, here are the three ways that I think of The Church being used:

C1: The Institution

C2: Local Congregation

C3: Family and Friends

Each of these groups has equal claim to being The Church and they undoubtedly are intertwined and influence one another. Without C1, you cannot have C2 or C3 (at least within Mormonism, as reflections of Mormonism). By the same token, without C2s and C3s, there is no C1. For the Institution to perpetuate, local congregations, families, and friends must continue to affiliate.

The ways in which these Three Churches interact with and influence one another are likely not unique to Mormonism. I suspect that every organized religion has some variation on these Three Churches. Even political parties and any other organization that has a national or other broad level of authority along with more local groups will bear some of the marks of what I’m looking at. (When I floated this idea in a very stripped down form on twitter, a friend remarked that I was channeling Charles Taylor. This was unintentional, but since I read his A Secular Age last year, he’s been bouncing around my head, so it’s likely inevitable. I hope I can make my case here with a tad more concision than he made his, but time will tell.)

C1: The Institution

The Institution of the Church could likely be made even more precise, given the large bureaucratic apparatus that exists in SLC and surrounding areas. But, that’s for another time. I tend to think of the Institution as Church headquarters, so the Church Office Building, the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the Auxiliary presidencies. This group has the largest consolidation of power in most traditional senses. They create the manuals and give the talks in General Conference and are the public face of the Church.

The Institution is responsible for any sense of doctrinal purity (however fruitless that errand ultimately is). The Institution is responsible for shaping the broad strokes of the narrative of my Mormon experience. In many ways, I cannot exist as a Mormon, that attends Church, without being touched by their influence. They determine what is in the manuals that are used in Sunday School and other general guidelines for what occurs on a weekly basis (and to some extent on other days throughout the week). The Institution determines in broad strokes what offenses should be met with which punishments.

The Institution also must compete with the spectre of its past. The Institution has existed in some form or another since 1830 (or the dawn of time depending on how you interpret teachings of The Restoration). The Institution then is constantly haunted by what has been said and done by every other previous manifestation of The Institution. The Spectre of the Institution is used in a number of different ways by people all along the ideological spectrum and perhaps it’s this spectre that motivates some of The Institution’s behavior (also I think it was David Holland that argued that Prophetic Authority is actually the weakest line of authority within a Mormon theological construct, as compared to personal revelation/the Holy Ghost and scripture, which may be why The Institution emphasizes it more than the others, to rhetorically even the scales).

Anyway. I am least interested in and least moved by The Church as The Institution.  

C2: My Local Congregation

The primary way that I think about The Church is as my local congregation, the people that I worship with every Sunday. This is where most of my lived experience as a Mormon takes place. This is where I participate in rituals and church services, this is where I serve, these are the people I see and wrestle with in the Gospel.

I have largely had very positive interactions with my various local congregations (all over Provo, Washington, D.C., London, northern England, and even to some extent Lithuania). In most of those places (Lithuania being the exception), I have been open about my experiences with faith and doubt and how I believe that doubt is essential to faith and that questions are good, that I don’t “know” things, but I “believe” them, and a number of related, semi-fringey positions. Without exception, I have people come up to me (often surprising people) and thank me for sharing my thoughts and remarking that they resonated with what I said. I have never been censured or called out (well, except once perhaps during an EQ lesson I taught with my brother about Race and the Priesthood).

All of that is to say that my experience has been very good in my local congregations. Not that I go purely to change hearts and minds. I go because they are my people, my spiritual community. I don’t feel complete in my worship without them. I learn from them, even when I disagree. I learn by being in fellowship with them.

Obviously, the local congregation is influenced by The Institution. But it’s also quite different. Even with somewhat standardized lesson materials and topics, the content and tone of those lessons varies widely. Someone’s experience with The Church as a local congregation may be radically different than their experience with the Church as The Institution.

For example, I think The Family: A Proclamation to the World is a, to put it lightly, problematic document that reflects and embodies certain sexist and homophobic ideas. The Family Proclamation is almost definitely a part of The Institution, and at least is frequently referenced by members of The Institution. However, I could go months in my ward without hearing people talk about it, which makes those two Churches quite different in relationship to categories of sexism and homophobia (though both are present at both levels, at least implicitly given structural considerations).

C3: My Family and Friends

I am Mormon, I was raised Mormon, and have lived my life up to this point surrounded by Mormons. The C3 Church helps to account for this group of people. Practically my entire family for generations, including my in-laws and their family for generations, is Mormon (Cec and I both come from about as Mormon stock as you can find). The vast majority of my friends are Mormon to some degree or another.

These people are The Church.

The robustness of this group will vary largely by individual, though the internet seems to allow for more connections than would be possible previously.

This body may be the most troubling (in a sorta Judith Butler sense) for definitional purposes and for a standard narrative or description of The Church. Everyone’s experience here is going to vary widely. This is also true at the C2 level, but there’s still enough Institutional power over local congregations that the differences among them are often of a lesser degree than the differences among the C3 Churches that people experience.

People tend to congregate with other people like them, which means that the Church at a C3 level is probably more homogenous than the C2 level, but that the different C3s have striking diversity among them. I mostly interact with similarly fringey Mormons (though my family members are largely quite traditional, orthodox, and conservative, so the make-up of my family and friend C3s is quite different).

Anyway, this iteration of The Church matters because it is one of the ways we understand and describe what The Church is capable of, or not. Like, my C3 Church is largely very on board with progressive politics surrounding LGBTQ+ issues, so I have a skewed sense of what Church membership broadly feels and thinks about them.

This becomes a sort of “found” Church, one that is self-curated. As I entered fringey Mormon spaces just after my mission, they challenged my understanding of what The Church could be. They opened my eyes to ways in which C2, and even occasionally C1, was different and more expansive than I’d previously considered. C3 seems to me to be the place where Mormonism is most interesting and potentially most alive, especially when welded with engagement in C2.

I’m a strong believer in the communal emphasis of Mormonism and for me, finding various C3 communities to be a part of (digitally and in person) has been instrumental in making my local congregation habitable. I realized that there were likely others like me to one degree or another in my congregation and I could do some work to claim and make space for me and others there.

The danger of a pure C3 communal space is that it lacks the diversity of thought and experience that I think is necessary for a truly healthy, welcoming, and sustainable community.

Obviously, without C3s, you cannot really have functioning C2s and the C1. This is partially why I believe so strongly in people (re)claiming Mormonism. We can shape what The Church is in a large sense, at least at the C3 level. There’s no formal hierarchy or gate-keeping (though in some C3s you may find plenty of informal elements of both of those). My experience with C3 Church is at its best when it has as little concern for The Institution (C1) as possible, though others’ mileage may vary on that point.

Breaking The Church down into these three categories is helpful for me in describing where my disagreement or problem or struggle or love or admiration is in relation to various elements of Mormonism. Some may span categories, which is fine and to be expected, honestly.

Understanding these distinctions and being more precise in our language I think can improve our discourse about The Church and our various frustrations or admirations. Or maybe it’ll just help me.    

Heavenly Mother: A Sunday Speculative Profile

We entered the cafe, looking for our usual booth. It was open and Marie waved us to it.

We sat down, I was holding H— since it was Mother’s Day, doing what I could to give Cec a break. We talk about the normal everyday things that we always talk about, mixed in with some peppered interjections about the podcasts we’d both been listening to and the occasional pause to look at and talk to H—.

Marie came over to get our order and as Cec spoke for both of us, I noticed that Evelyn was at the counter, with a world-weary look on Her face. She’d always been great to H— and me and Cec in our time here, helping us feel welcome almost immediately.

I tried to puzzle over why she’d look so weary and was going to ask Cec if she’d heard anything, but H— started fussing and I forgot in the immediate flurry of helping her.

Our food came and we chatted, but I kept seeing Evelyn and thinking that we should say something to Her.

As we finished, we finally made our way over.

“Hey Evelyn, how’s it going?” I ask.

She raises Her head from Her steaming cup of coffee and smiles wearily, but warmly as She locks eyes with H—.

“Always tired and sorrowing for the ills of the world and particularly for my sisters,” She replied.

She paused and swallowed, but the air was filled with Her words and holy, it felt wrong to speak, to violate the silence and space that She’d created, so I waited.

She started and stopped a few times, looking for the precise words to fit, the entire time communicating deeply with H— wordlessly.

“I’ve served the good people here for years and still, pain and suffering surrounds us. Despite my best efforts I can’t prevent people from hurting and I know the value of pain and the inevitability of grief, yet, still it hurts,” as She opened Herself up, tears welled in the corners of Her eyes and began to fall, “I look around me and am tired. Tired from the work I’ve done, tired at the thought of all the work there is to do, tired from the work that must be left to others.”

H— began to growl, babbling wildly and enthusiastically, smiling and looking straight at Evelyn.

Evelyn smiled and laughed as H— continued, a smile and laugh that know deep pain, that feel the full breadth of life’s emotions.

“Thank you,” She says to all of us, but mostly it seems to H—.

We say our goodbyes and I walk to towards the door, holding H—. I look around as I reach the door and see that Cec and Evelyn are talking, I think about going over again, but something holds me back. I simply watch. They part with a warm farewell.

As Cec walks over we join hands, fingers interlocking. I smile at her and we walk back to the car.

Heavenly Mother: A Saturday Speculative Profile

I don’t know how I’m going to get out of this. It’s not the first time I’ve had that thought, but it’s also the first time I’ve been brought here, before Her. So, uh, we’ll see how long my luck manages to hold out.

The guards brought me before Her, and I immediately was stunned by the elegance of the throne room. Gold and wood and carefully placed gems throughout. I never thought I’d end up here. And surely not like this. I was small-time. Smuggling small things here and there. Nothing worthy of the Queen of Creation’s notice.

I’ve spent most of my life on the edges, the fringes, called out here and pushed out there, but always had a place to land or a way to spin my work as less dangerous or less illegal than it was in actuality.

But Her? She was the most well-read monarch that’d ruled the galaxies for generations. She would see right through me.

“Conor, welcome,” She said, Her dark skin shining as She gestured broadly at the court, “I’ve been waiting for this moment.”

“You have?”

“Yes, no one has quite so persistently needled away at My work, Our work as you. No matter where you find yourself. You just keep at it.”

Her tone was difficult to read, I was caught between thinking this was begrudging admiration and frustration. But She was clearly in control.

“Why, thank you.”

She narrowed Her eyes and looked at me sharply, “Your persistence and dedication is admirable, but your cause? Empty. You rebel for rebellion’s sake. What guides you? Why do you do what you do? You could be so much more.”

At this point, She was standing, Her powerful frame imposing. She walked toward me and looked me in the eyes as she asked those last questions, turning away with pain at Her last words.

“But you and your queendom are everything. What choices do I have beyond joining and reacting? All life is is the powerful acting and the disempowered reacting.”

“Ah, that is a reductive and binary view of the world, yes,” She responded, still turned away from me, “But does acting in direct opposition to the voice of the powerful mean that “They” have any less influence over your life than when you did precisely what They directed?”

I paused, before pressing on, “The powerful must be resisted. At all costs. Don’t try to frame my resistance as your continued influence. I am free.”

She looked at me, eyes fierce, but weary.

“You’re wrong, Conor,” She said firmly, the quiet power of Her voice striking deep.

She began to enumerate the support for Her position, laying out an intricate and stunning argument. But I knew I was lost from that simple, unrelenting rebuttal.

“We need you. We even need your opposition, to challenge and to push us, to prevent the powerful from taking advantage of those less powerful. We need true, inspired resistance, none of this purely reactive, reductive self-serving behavior.”

“Really? But how?”

She came toward me, placing one hand on my shoulder, our eyes locked.

“Now, Conor, I cannot tell you how. You’d simply be listening to the voice of power, the Queen of All Creation, and that just wouldn’t do. You have to carve that path out for yourself, though I’m sure we’ll be speaking again.”

She turned from me, waving Her arm and snapping Her fingers.

Her guards gather and start to escort me away.
“Wait, where are you taking me? She needs me. You heard Her…” I protest.

“Giving you purpose, where you had none, that was mercy. To turn you loose without trial or efforts at rehabilitation? That would be neither just, nor merciful. You participated in breaking Creation and now must work to heal Her. But others shall give you the first framework for you. They’re taking you to await further insight into your case.”

I tried to protest further, but came up short every time I tried to think of something to say.

“Go. Give the people Hope, that’s what rebellions are built on, after all. I bring steadiness, comfort, and care to the people, but cannot provide Hope, you must do that. Without hope, we stagnate. Go and do wrong no more. Spread hope.”

Stunned, I let the guards guide me out of the throne room. She saw right through me. Could I really be more than a reaction? Could I have a purpose? Could I give people hope? I committed to try.  

Heavenly Mother: A Friday Speculative Profile

Cec and I were whale-watching in Alaska, little H— in tow. Cec has talked about Alaska more or less every day we’ve known each other. It is, unquestionably, her favorite place on earth. And now, we were finally going. She was brimming with pure joy. And to top it all off, we were whale-watching.

Cec turns to me and grabs my arm, “I LOVE whales.”

I chuckle and my eyes crinkle.

“I know, babe, I know.”

We stand next to each other, holding hands, and  looking over the side of the ship we were on. H— was settled in one of those carriers on my chest, so she was only going over if I went over. Safety first.  

We’d been out for awhile and had seen some fish and birds and stunning views of the ocean and Alaskan coast, but so far, no whales.

But up ahead, it looked like something was breaking through the ocean surface.

“Cec, what’s that?”

Cec looks attentively, recalling all her hours of Planet Earth and other nature documentaries.

“Gotta be whales,” she says confidently.

“What kind?”

“Pretty sure, that’s a humpback whale…wait, look, there’s more!”

We looked intently at the scene in front of us. A pod of the humpback whales was surrounded by something else. Smaller and sleeker. One leaped through the air. An orca! The pod of orcas was moving menacingly towards the pod of humpbacks.

Cec was turning from the whales to me, her mouth and eyes wide with shock, intensity, and horror.

The humpback whales had a baby whale with them. One of them pulled forward and was clearly the leader of the pod.

“The All-Mother!” Cec cried out.

The orcas began attacking the humpback whales, trying to break through the pod to get at the baby.

I clutch H— tighter and Cec comes over and places one arm around me and one on H— as we look out at the whales, riveted, unable to look away.

It was looking grim for the humpbacks. The pod was being decimated by the orcas, as they moved closer and closer to the baby. Suddenly the All-Mother got into action.

She was fierce.

Unstoppable.

She swam from orca to orca and used Her huge tail to slap the orcas. She beat them back and knocked them aside with Her head. Almost single-handedly She took charge and saved the child—Her child?—from the attacking orcas.

We were awestruck at the display of pure, maternal power.

The All-Mother nuzzled the child. An outpouring of warmth and comfort. I felt the tension leave my body, and I just look at H— with relief and wonder at her existence. Cec and I look at each other, sharing the moment together.

We begin talking, trying to process what we just saw.

I turn away from the whales, Cec is still half-watching over my shoulder.

H— starts fussing a bit, so I try to move around some, walking around the deck, giving some bounce, hoping to calm her down.

“Babe, Conor, babe. You’re not going to believe this.”

“What? What happened?”

“The whales. The WHALES. They talked to me.”

“How?” I reply, somewhat incredulously.

“Their song. It was for me. Somehow, just for me. Like, She started singing and I knew what She was saying. Or at least, I felt it.”

“Well, what did She say?”

“I can’t quite put it into words. Something about me having the strength to fight for H— when the time comes?”

I looked back out over the ocean, watching the pod of whales swim away. As I watch, I could’ve sworn the All-Mother leaped out of the ocean, flipped, looked me dead in the eyes, winked, and splashed back down before swimming away.

I turn to Cec.

“Of course you do.”

We pull each other close, looking out over the Pacific.

The humpbacks swim away, their song ringing faintly over the ocean.

Heavenly Mother: A Thursday Speculative Profile

H— was sleeping in her bouncer on the kitchen floor nearby as I was working furiously to finish the week’s stack of dishes and clean the mess that the kitchen always seems to be no matter how often we cleaned it. Cec was resting in our room, turned in early for the night. I was singing along to my years old, “Best Of” playlist.

“Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with meeeeeeeee…”

I was exhausted and overwhelmed. Life was just so much. Work, Cec, H— and everything else that was up ahead.

Life is good. And exhausting. How do you do it all? How can I be a dad and husband and soon to be student and generally decent human and teacher and disciple and political activist for a thousand different worthy causes? How can I give Cec everything she needs? How can I give H— everything that she needs? How do I keep my own interests alive and balanced and myself thriving as a creative person on top of all that other stuff? How do I find time for all the movies I want to see, books I want to read, podcasts and albums I want to listen to, and other art that I want to engage with?

Who knew that washing the dishes could spark an existential crisis?

I kept washing. At least I could do that. Hopefully before H— woke up.

I just always felt like I was neglecting something. Not fully taking advantage of what life had to offer, that no matter how much I watched or read or wrote or did, it would never be enough. That I would always fall short of the time I should’ve spent with Cec and H—.

 How do people do this? How do they live with this pressure, every day, forever? Does it ever get better?

I had just a few dishes left and was about to get to cleaning the kitchen, which I’d been hoping to do all week.

H— started crying. She was suddenly awake and suffering, she must have had a nightmare or something. She needed immediate attention.

“Hey, hey, H— it’ll be ok. I’ll be right there,” I breathe out, trying to sound reassuring and calming and also urgent, as I try to finish washing the dish in my hand and then get it put down and my hands dry so I can pick her up.

Lost in the urgency, I don’t notice until I turn back to grab her that she’s stopped crying.

A woman was holding her, with red bushy hair, freckles, and bright green eyes. She was wearing a denim jacket covered in patches and behind Her, parked in our kitchen was a vaguely orb-shaped craft of some kind, with the door open, and controls visible, looking like the origin of this mysterious woman.

“Well, now, H—. I’ve been hoping to get to see you. I’ve been watching your mom and dad for a long time, now. You’re in for a treat,” She looks up at me and winks, with a bright twinkle in Her eyes as She says that last line.

I feel like I know Her, even though I know I’ve never seen Her before. I’m not sure at all what is going on and am honestly baffled at this spaceship that found its way into our kitchen and this strange, familiar woman was holding H—.

H— looked totally comfortable and thrilled to be in Her arms, honestly. Which did something to assuage my fears (I’m not sure why I trust H— to be this barometer of truth and goodness, but it seems fair that her wild, less-biased baby judgments may have some shred of truth to them).

“Conor, you look exhausted. You gotta get some sleep. Probably the least helpful thing I could say to you right now, though. You’re a new dad. You won’t be sleeping well for at least like 18 years,” She finished with a grin and a soft laugh.

Realization dawned on me.

“God-Mom? Is that you?”

“In the flesh.”

I was stunned. No wonder She was familiar and strange all at the same time.

“Why me?”

She shrugged and then turned to H— to say, “You’re so cute,” as H— growled at Her in her new dinosaur voice that she’s been exploring for the last couple of days. “You needed some help and had some questions, so here I am, perhaps not with answers, but with love.”

H—’s lip started to quiver and then she was screaming, yelling the loudest she could, as if she were dying.

God-Mom reached out to me, holding H— to pass her off. I take her, talking to her the whole time I pull her close to me.

H— calms down as soon as she’s in my arms, still intermittently reminding me of the suffering that she has experienced with yells and general pouts. As I’ve focused on H—I lose sight of Her and then I look back up and realize that She’s climbed aboard Her ship and was about to take off, Her Aquabats patch barely visible over the side of the ship.

“You take care of her, now, Conor.”

“I will, I do,” I affirm enthusiastically, as I look H— in the eyes, she smiles and laughs and I’m filled with light and goodness and joy.

“Ah, you’re feeling it Conor. That’s how you carry on. Those moments right there. It won’t all be good, but nothing compares to those glimpses of Heaven that your children and loved ones give you.”

She had stood up and moved out just a tad as this was happening and then turned to get re-settled in Her spaceship, “Take care of yourself, Conor. You’re no good to your family, friends, Church, or the world at large, if you don’t give yourself what you need, to be who you are and do the good you need to do.”

By this point She had returned to Her spaceship.

The door was closing and She was waving as I tried to wave, while holding a fussing and growling daughter.

“Oh, one last thing,” She called out, “Watch a movie. Read a book. Write. It’ll make you a better dad. And remember, reckless abandon.”

The door closed on Her twinkling eyes and then blasted into Space without destroying our roof.

“H— what do you think about all that?” I ask her.  

She growls, smiles, and laughs.