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Sunstone Presentation: What Is Authentic Spirituality?

On Thursday, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate on a panel with Dan Wotherspoon, Phyllis Barber, and Bob Rees at the Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City.  Our topic was “just what is spirituality?”  The text of the presentation I gave is as follows…

The idea of being spiritual but not religious is one that I’ve heard from several friends, but it’s never been something that has resonated with my experience. That’s because I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with the opposite problem – being religious but not spiritual.

In my presentation today, I’d like to speak a little bit about what that means, share my story of how I came to a place of more spiritual connectedness, and then perhaps try to explore some of the things I have discovered about what spirituality is and how religion can help or hinder it.

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On Navigating a Faith Transition

A friend of mine recently shared that she was in the process of transition with her faith — she was beginning to ask serious questions and make significant shifts to her worldview.   It made me reflect on my own journey.  I have spent several years now asking questions and recalibrating my perspective, a process that I’m sure will continue throughout my life.   I thought it would be interesting to write a letter to myself as if I were at the beginning of the journey.  What words of advice would I share with myself?  Here’s what I came up with… Continue Reading →

On Justice, Trayvon Martin, and a Mighty Change of Heart

The Trayvon Martin case has found the entire country smack-dab in the middle of a heated conversation on race.  Some claim that race had nothing to do with the verdict, that justice was served.

While I concede that the verdict itself may have been correct based on the evidence (or lack thereof) in the case, I believe it’s impossible to say that justice was served.  Justice means shining light on things that are hidden so that they can be witnessed and acknowledged; it means telling the truth, the whole truth, even when — no, especially when — it’s ugly.  Only then can healing take place.

Even if George Zimmerman really did act in self-defense, the whole truth wasn’t told.   It’s still stewing beneath the surface, bubbling up in bursts of violence like the altercation between Zimmerman and Martin and in billions of different ways each and every day.  The truth is difficult to confront head-on; we want to think of ourselves as kind, caring, compassionate, good.  But it’s there nonetheless, and it’s pervasive, and it has no place in the Kingdom of God, nor in the hearts of followers of Christ.

It is the impulse to “Otherize” those who are different.  

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What Are True “Christian Family Values”?

There’s been a lot of talk about the importance of “the family” in Mormon circles lately — likely because of deliberations happening right now with the Supreme Court.

Please note that this post isn’t a place for a debate about gay marriage.  Instead, the ongoing discussion about family served as an impetus for me to reflect on the role of family in the gospel of Christ.  Tonight, I thought I’d take it straight to the source.  I turned to the gospels with this question on my mind: what does Christ actually have to say about it?

As always, Jesus shocked me.  You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but he never ceases to shake my very foundations.  Here are the bulk of his sayings on “the family” (I’m warning you now to brace yourself) ;)

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Standing Amazed: Good Friday, Easter Sunday, the New Pope and Mormon General Conference

I have to confess that I love religious ritual. There is a beauty to the reading from the Torah or the way the incense is shaken as it travels through the nave and the way the white cloth is lifted, folded, and set down by young Mormon priesthood bearers. There is a specific beauty to the practiced bob of a daven, the rising and bending of Muslims in prayer, and the raising of the right arm to the square before a baptism. Even watching someone meditate (truly meditate and not just in the fashionable way) fills me with an uncanny awe. I stand amazed and the power that comes from seeking–and often finding–the divine.

Good Friday at my house dawned this morning with spring sunshine and noisy kids getting ready for school. We rushed through our morning routine (not nearly as awe-inspiring as a ritual; it’s simply what we do), squeezed in our scripture study, and prayed while standing in a circle in front of the door with backpacks and jackets on. All of us secretly hoping that no one was going to miss the bus or forget their homework.

It wasn’t until I settled down to breathe and look out my window that Good Friday settled into my heart. Today was the day most of the Christian world was remembering and commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. My heart began to ache and an emptiness settled inside me, an emptiness that Jesus Christ’s miraculous sacrifice usually fills. But not today. Today is the day we remember how He was pushed out of this world. How He was not accepted, honored, revered, or even really listened to. I feel a weight of sadness and anger and frustration–all the things that I would have to constantly carry if not for Him. Today it is my burden and I carry it, even though He doesn’t ask me to, because I need a way to show my solidarity with Him. I am amazed that even in His hour of sorrow He is willing to comfort me and I wish I could do the same.

I wish I had a ritual for this feeling, this emptiness, this vacuum of solace. Something to help me shoulder my burden more efficiently. Something to acknowledge the pain that He suffered and the process of His grief. But there is no ritual for Mormons on this day. We don’t go to Church. We don’t sing special songs. Instead, in true Mormon and Christian fashion, I seek to make my home a holy place on this day by being just a little more patient with my children, by filling my mind with sacred hymns and scripture, and by pausing in gratitude over and over and over again.

There is the hope of Easter Sunday, though, in a quiet spot inside my heart. Like the tulips, strawberry vines, and pea plants just peeking out of the dirt in my garden, hope and life is preparing to return to the world.  We will go to Church. We will take the sacrament and commemorate His suffering. We will sing special songs and we will rejoice together. This emptiness is but a moment and rebirth is imminent.

This has been a strange week for Holy Week. Tensions have been high this week in America with anger and hurt and confusion bleeding into so many conversations.  Tensions are running high across the world. There are wars, fiscal crises, droughts, and famines. There is hate within families and misunderstanding and mistrust within communities. I can’t help but think that we have all forgotten how much we have in common and how much we need to reach out to each other.

Which is probably why the actions of the newest pope, Pope Francis I, have been so meaningful. He broke with tradition, he reached across boundaries, and he confirmed solidarity with those different from himself in a way that was truly commemorative of Jesus Christ.  He said, “It is not in soul-searching… that we encounter the Lord. We need to go out … to the outskirts where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters.” I stand amazed at the power of ritual to remind, reframe, and renew.

One week from Easter will the General Conference for the Mormon Church. For me it also is a holy time. It doesn’t carry the same gravity that Holy Week does, but it is thrilling and edifying and brings spiritual renewal. Not every talk is for me but the ones that are resonate down to my bones. We have our small family rituals (cinnamon rolls, visiting family, and special coloring packets) to commemorate the graciousness of God’s gift of prophets. And I am always amazed at the power of God’s love to change my every day life.

A Thought Exercise: A “Mormonized” Version of the Parable of the Good Samaritan

I’m reading Marcus Borg’s challenging and thought-provoking book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (note: I don’t recommend it as a starting place if you don’t already have some exposure to scholarship that addresses the historicity of scripture).

I just finished a section about the purity system in 1st century Palestine’s social world.  Borg explains that the purity system was “a social system organized around the contrasts or polarities of pure and impure, clean and unclean.”   Purity was decided by such things as birth, behavior, physical wholeness (thus, lepers, eunuchs, crippled people, etc. were “impure”), profession, sex, and one’s identity as Jew or Gentile (with Gentiles being, by definition, unclean).

Christ came, in large part, to challenge the purity system; to replace ritual cleanliness (or what the ancient Jews called “righteousness”) with compassion; to eliminate categories and hierarchies; to touch the untouchables.

One of his most radical parables along these lines was the Good Samaritan.  As Borg explains,

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Letter to a Missionary: On Questions and Faith

I received a wonderful letter last week from my little sister who is serving a mission in Europe. She has starting thinking about Heavenly Mother and had some questions about where She is and why we don’t talk more about Her. What follows is part of my response to my sis.

It was a treat for me to read about your questions and the things you’ve been thinking about lately. Trust me when I say you are not the first person to ask these questions. :) I’m going to share some thoughts and insights I’ve gained through the years since I started thinking, reading, and talking about this sort of stuff. I hope some of it is helpful to you, but please understand that these are not The Ultimate Answers. Part of a mature faith is coming to realize that the questions are often more important than the answers. What I’ll share is just some ways I’ve interacted with the questions.

I just read a book by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and he said something that I find extremely comforting.

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing, live along some day into the answer.

Our culture wants us to get the Right Answer. It’s ingrained in us, from the way we do school (testing, quizzes, etc.), to our fear of making mistakes and being wrong. But faith, especially robust faith — livable faith — exists in the tension of difficult questions, not in the resolution of easy answers.

With that in mind, I’d like to share a few thoughts your letter sparked.

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The Gospel of Jesus Is Not a Plan

The gospel of Jesus is not a plan.

It is not a pattern.

It is not a gender role, it is not an ordinance, it is not a holy book.

It is not a priesthood.

It is not a prophet, it is not a calling, it is not something you earn or for which you qualify.

It is not a weapon.  It is not a paycheck.  It is not a right.

It is not safe.

It is not power.

The gospel of Jesus is a stripping away.  It is a radical revolution of heart and community.   It is a tear-your-guts-out, break-down-your-walls, destroy-all-your-paradigms, full-contact-sport of living and loving in blindingly truthful ways.

It is salt in a meal.  It is yeast in a loaf.  It is treasure in a field.

It is the God of the Universe making Himself so vulnerable, so raw, that blood dripped from every pore and nails tore at His flesh as a symbol of the agony we inflict upon each other when we insist that the gospel is anything – anything — but Him.

Things that are not the gospel may help us experience the gospel.  But when we make them the gospel, when we supplant Him with them, oh –

How we miss the mark indeed.

Friends Who Flunk: Listening (January)

About a year ago, I read Jana Riess’s delightful book, Flunking Sainthood, and loved it.  Then just a couple of months ago, a good friend read it and loved it, too.

Afterward, she came up with a brilliant idea: let’s do our own year of spiritual practices!

We enlisted the help of another of our close friends, and decided to make 2013 our own year of spiritual failure.  :) And we’d like to invite you to join us!

Each month, we’ll choose a practice — sometimes inspired by Riess’s book, sometimes based on our own needs and interests.  We’ll put it into practice all month long (well, okay, we’ll try to).  At the end of the month, we’ll blog about how we did and how it impacted our lives. If you’d like to play along, you can attempt the practice for the month with us, then share your experiences with us in the comments section of our posts.

For January, the spiritual practice we’ve chosen is listening.

(And yes, okay, I get that we’ve just barely started even though it’s January 12 and we’re basically halfway through the month.  Failure #1?)

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Why I Believe in Santa Claus

This has been amended from I post I wrote on my personal blog last year, which I no longer update.

Today, my husband posted a “personalized” Santa Claus video on Facebook that we’d made and sent to our daughter.   One of his friends, a staunch atheist, made this comment on the thread: “I’m telling [my son] the truth about Santa, because I don’t want to tell him a lie, besides, if he starts believing cultural mythology, who knows what he might start believing.”

I told him that he’d missed the point.

He responded thus: “Katie, ‘you missed the point’ is an easy thing to say.  Please explain what the point is, then I’ll know.”

This was my reply:

For me, the point is living in a world where not everything is explained or cut-and-dried — a world of mystery and awe. Where there are grand, sweeping stories (the mythology you speak of) that inform our lives and give us a cultural language that allow us to belong to each other in a special and specific way.

I’m a professional writer and I used to be an actress. I am intimately acquainted with the power of story, especially shared story. Even if you don’t believe in Santa Claus, we all use grand narratives to make sense of this world. I’m not just talking about the WHAT. Logos — science, logic, reason — provides the WHAT. But it can never answer WHY. That’s what mythos — narrative, story, symbolism — is for. I believe that a balanced, peaceful life embraces both.

To me, there is profound truth in the story of Santa Claus, even if it’s not LITERALLY true: it is a story of love, of giving, of the preciousness of children and the innocence of youth. I don’t need it to be literally true to believe in it deeply. It is valuable and real to me just as it is. It points at a deeper truth, one that can’t be measured or observed with microscopes and lab equipment, but that resides at the center of the human experience. That’s the sort of thing you only get at through traditions and mythology like Santa Claus.

So, there you have it. Why I believe in Santa Claus and why we send our daughter little emails about it. One day, she’ll ask if Santa is real, and we’ll tell her about what I just told you: “He doesn’t actually live at the North Pole or fly around the world with magic reindeer — but he’s still very, very real, if you want him to be.”

Your mileage may vary, of course. I wish you a very happy, healthy, and wonderful holiday season, however you choose to celebrate with your family. :)

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