Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Can It Truly Be That I Converted a Mormon?

by mev

I was pretty sure I knew more about other religions that the average American. My belief was based on the knowledge that came from (a) growing up Unitarian (the junior high curriculum was called The Church Across the Street and has evolved to the Neighboring Faiths curriculum that my seventh grader is in), (b) teaching RE for years, and (c) a general nosiness, uh, interest in other people's lives.

The Mormons were mostly a mystery, though, until I met Philomytha. As I got to know her, I realized I might have an opportunity to get some inside answers to questions I'd been holding onto ever since reading a couple of Washington Post articles some years earlier.

When I felt comfortable, I boldly asked about her underwear (yes, Mormons wear special undergarments to help remind them of their covenant) and why Mormons baptize dead people (so they have the choice of accepting Mormon teachings and going to the good Mormon afterlife). Note: these are my simplified interpretations of much longer answers.

With that stuff out of the way, I wanted to learn more so I had several meetings with the local Mormon missionaries. I am not sure whether they really understood that I simply wanted more info in order to better understand my new friend, Philomytha. At the end of the four meetings, I thanked the guys and told them what I'd told them all along--Unitarian Universalism works for me and I have no intention of converting.

And that's where my first Aha! insight came along. Despite my belief that I knew a lot about other religions, I'd been operating under an assumption that is simply not true! It is this: We all believe that a person's religion ought to work for him or her; that is, that it ought to be a good fit. And if it isn't, then you search for a religion that is a good fit for you.

As Philomytha and AdventureGirl (another Mormon friend) talked about their church, expressing their concerns and, yes, complaints, I offered what I thought was a simple and true statement, "It sounds like your church doesn't work for you." But my friends were surprised that I thought their religion ought to work for them.

Wow. It was mind-boggling to me that it was mind-boggling to them.

So, now here we are: AdventureGirl and her family have moved overseas (her husband is military) and are taking a year off Mormonism to follow their spiritual paths, and Philomytha and her kids are spending a sabbatical year jumping into my UU congregation.

Monday, September 28, 2009

RE Week 2 - Lexical Ambiguity and Evolution

by Philomytha

My 2nd, and maybe last, week in RE. NinjaBoy told me that he was "starting to feel more comfortable." Yeah!

They told us last week that this Sunday's service would begin in the chapel. And then, fortunately, they explained where the chapel was. Otherwise I would have been sitting in the sanctuary with my kids, wondering where all the other kids were. It's funny how a slightly different use of a familiar word can throw you off. What is the big room with the pews where the main services are held called in Methodist/Presbyterian/Catholic churches?

The chapel service was familiar, in a way. All the kids together, sitting with their classes... It was a lot like Sharing Time in Primary. :) The RE Director lit the chalice and talked about what it meant and where it came from (it was designed by an Austrian artist back in the 40's for the Unitarian Service Committee, who helped refugees escape the Nazis). She had a display of many chalices of different sizes and shapes.
"Why do you think there are so many different kinds of chalices?" she asked.

One of the children said, "Because there are so many different kinds of people."

The answer was so automatic I wondered if it was the UU equivalent of a "Primary answer" -- pray, read your scriptures, keep the commandments -- those things that you can use to respond to pretty much any question asked and it will probably be right. If it is an automatic "RE answer," it's a good one.

I tend to be a bit of a pragmatist in that I think it matters less if something is literally true than if it is useful to people in helping them live better lives. I know prayer helps a lot of people, but for me it has always been a superstitious ritual that added to my anxiety rather than provided comfort, so I haven't found it personally helpful. It might be helpful to my kids, so it would be good for them to learn about it (without the misleading promises that the Holy Ghost will tell you where you left your Nintendo DS and such things). But learning at a young age that it's normal and good for people to be different? I'm fairly confident that's useful. Not an easy thing to internalize, probably, but useful.

The RE Director went on to talk about the light of the candle in the chalice represents the light that we have in all of us -- the light that helps us to see how we love other people, how they love us, how all people are connected and important to each other.

A-ha! I thought. I recognize this! It's the Light of Christ. Only without Christ. I contemplated for a while whether it makes a difference to assign the light to Jesus Christ. Does he have to be connected to it in order for it to be valid? Can someone follow that light, live a good life, be compassionate and loving without ever associating it with Christ? I think even a believing Mormon would agree that yes, they absolutely can.

During the rest of the service, I felt quite clearly that peaceful feeling of rightness that in the LDS church would be called the Holy Ghost. I'd be more likely to attribute it to having a moment of quiet contemplation for once, but however you interpret it, it was very nice to feel like I was in the right place.

My son's class was loud. They found countries on the map, talked about the reasons why religions have holidays, and played a type of tag from India (scorpion sting tag -- it involves crawling around on the floor and tagging people with one foot). The boys were rowdy and mine fit right in. The teacher from next door came and told us to keep it down. Good luck with that.

Once again I left him in the classroom while I went to pick up my daughter. There were a couple of other moms waiting outside the 6th grade classroom. We introduced ourselves. I said we were new. "So are we," said one. "We are too," said the other. I asked if they had moved from somewhere else or if they were new to Unitarian Universalism. The latter, both of them. It was either was quite a coincidence or that church gets a lot of newcomers.

When Butterfly came out of her class the first thing she said to me, with her eyes wide, "They don't tell you what you should believe!" We agreed that was pretty cool. And I explained that was one of the unusual things about Unitarian Universalism, since convincing you to believe a certain way is one of the main goals of most religions.

They had been asked to say something about what they believed, with some suggested questions. The ones I saw written on the board were "If you believe there is a God, who do you think made God?" and "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?"

Butterfly said she believed that the Earth was formed by rocks and space debris sticking together. I asked if anyone had talked about God. "No, not really." But the one thing the whole class agreed on was that the egg came first, because chickens evolved from raptors.

They brainstormed possible service projects, including Heifer International and helping David, a local homeless man. Some suggestions they came up with for ways to help David -- a water purifier, blankets, non-perishable food, and, er, beer. Butterfly reported that this last suggestion was soundly rejected by everyone. What a bunch of Mormons!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Religious Exploration Begins

by Philomytha

Last Sunday was the first day of Religious Exploration classes for my kids. Everyone met in the sanctuary at the beginning for a few minutes, then the kids were taken out and divided into classes according to grade level.

I went with my son to his class, "Holidays and Holy Days." He's shy and anxious, and he was petrified to be in a brand new place with a bunch of strangers. He sat on my lap during most of the class and refused to even introduce himself and say what school he went to. The first activity was to write a "covenant," essentially a list of rules that the children came up with and all signed their name to.

Culture shock moment #1. "Covenant" is an extremely important word in the LDS church, and it is used quite differently and specifically. Covenants are what you make with God, not with other people. Making and keeping sacred covenants in conjunction with their related ordinances -- baptism, endowment, sealing -- is how you are saved. They're the ladder you climb to reach the Celestial Kingdom. It was strange to hear the word put to such an everyday use as describing a list of class rules.

After writing the covenant, the teacher talked about what the class will cover -- a variety of holidays from different religions, including some Hindu holidays that I'd never heard of before. She talked a little bit about what holidays have in common across religions, like gift giving, special foods, and light (Christmas lights, Hanukah candles, jack o'lanterns, fireworks, etc). My son asked me how much longer the class was and I told him it was almost over. He was shocked! It's so short! Only an hour or so. :)

At the end of class the kids stuck markers together until they reached the ceiling. This was the highlight, of course. My boy was perfectly happy for me to leave him then to go get his sister, then they played outside on the playground for about an hour.

Culture shock #2 -- they have a playground. At church. They do not have playgrounds at LDS churches. Playing on the playground is not an appropriate Sabbath day activity.

There were muffins and brownies (I don't know if this is a normal occurrence or if it was just because it was the first day, but yum!), and my son played with some of the kids from his class for a while. When I asked him what he thought, he seemed to be withholding judgment. He agreed that it would be worth it to come back a few times and see how it went. For him, this is huge! He never likes anything! Hey Mikey!

My daughter loved her class, which was as I expected. We've visited a few times in the past and she always enjoys it. Her class is called The Questing Year, and there were several quests they talked about, which she can't quite remember now. She thinks that some of them were a quest to learn about Unitarian Universalism, a quest to learn about herself, and a service quest. I realized that this is probably a good opportunity for her to learn about the LDS religion too, as part of learning about herself. After seven years of correlated lessons in Primary, I think it's safe to say that she knows nothing about her religious heritage and how our family fits into it.

So the kids played, and I watched the people.

Culture shock #3 -- Unitarian Universalists look a lot different than Mormons. Or at least the people in this congregation do. The dress was more casual, for the most part, some were even wearing shorts. Men's hair was longer, there were more beards and few ties. But I was surprised to discover that the women looked different too, especially the older ones. More women had a natural look -- hair that was not colored, and not carefully styled, many didn't wear make-up. And the odd thing was that I found that I had a slightly negative reaction to the way people looked, as if perhaps they were not as trustworthy as LDS church members. I realize this is probably a result of the emphasis in Mormonism in looking a certain way in order to promote the church's public image of wholesomeness. And it's something I need to get over.

The biggest difference between last Sunday and most Sundays was that when I got my kids up out of bed they got dressed and ready to go without a fight. Maybe it was just because it was something new and different. But it was sooooo lovely. We'll see if they're as happy to go this Sunday!

A Sabbatical in Unitarian Universalism

by Philomytha

After growing up in a cultural Mormon family, attending BYU, marrying in the temple, and spending 15 or 20 years making a powerful effort to be a believing member of the church, I have recently started attending a Unitarian Universalist church.

This was a joint decision by my husband and me. While I don't consider myself a very spiritual person, my husband feels strongly that our children need to attend church because that's where you stop for a little while each week and focus on being a good person. Or as they say at the UU church, "becoming our best selves." We chose Unitarian Universalism partly because I am agnostic and UU doesn't require any particular set of beliefs, and partly because the spirit of true service and compassion that is present in the church resonates with what my husband and I feel the purpose of religion should be.

My UU friend, whom I will call mev, calls it a sabbatical -- we're taking a break from the LDS church and trying something different for a while. :) She wanted to start this blog to both chronicle my experience and to discuss the different world views of Mormonism and Unitarian Universalism. I expect it to be mind-broadening. For me, at least.