Saturday, May 18, 2013

I'm Coming Out . . . as a Feminist.

My topic is 'Righteous Priesthood Service,' which puts me in the awkward position of hang to stand here, as a woman, and tell the brethren how to be good priesthood holders. However, I've heard a large number of talks over the years on righteous womanhood, given by priesthood holders, so I figure that turnabout is fair play.

I am, of course, speaking from a woman’s perspective, but I hope that my comments may be equally applicable to all priesthood service, whether given to men or to women. I’ve organized my thoughts into three categories of ways that I think that you brethren can be better priesthood holders:

1. O, be wise . . . but not just with your own wisdom;
2. Bridle all your passions; and

3. Get in touch with your feminine side. 

The brethren of the priesthood are extremely important to me as a Latter-day Saint woman. I need their permission to be baptized and confirmed, to attend the temple, to serve a mission. I need their assistance to partake of the sacrament, to do vicarious work for my ancestors, or to receive laying on of hands for healing or comfort. I need their nomination to serve in a calling. I am grateful for the good and righteous priesthood holders in my life who have judged me worthy of all these blessings and allowed me to make and keep the sacred covenants that bring me closer to my Father in Heaven. But I implore you brethren, before you become self-congratulatory over your own righteousness, to remember the great harm that one unwise priesthood holder may do. I don’t say ‘unrighteous’ . . . I only say ‘unwise.’

Towards the end of my mission, I developed an anxiety disorder. I’d be minding my own business when suddenly, like lightning out of a clear blue sky, I’d be back in the middle of a nightmare I didn’t remember ever dreaming. The episodes left me terrified and disoriented. I had no idea what was happening to me. I almost thought I was being possessed by demons . . . or else that I was going crazy. I knew I needed help.

Our mission shared with several others the services of a therapist who’d been called as  a mental health missionary to our area. Unfortunately, he was in Japan while I was in Korea. To speak to him, I needed the permission of my mission president. To speak to my president, I needed the permission of my zone leader, and to get to my zone leader, I had to go through my district leader. You RMs all know how this works. So I went to my district leader, a young Korean elder several years younger than myself, and explained to him in a language I didn’t speak that something I didn’t understand was seriously wrong with me.

There are many ways that Elder Jung could have served me in that moment. He could have told me that all missionaries get scared sometimes, and that he understood what I was feeling. He could have promised to pray for me. He could have suggested to me that I work harder, study more, and gain greater faith to overcome. If he had done any of these good things, I would not have been able to finish my mission. Instead, he gave me the greatest service of all: he was wise, but not with just his own wisdom. He trusted my judgment and provided the service that I knew I needed. At my request, he gave me a blessing, then called the zone leaders. They called President Jennings. Prez called Japan. Dr. Brown, in Japan, called me. And I got the help that I needed to get my anxiety disorder under control and finish my mission with honor.

You priesthood brethren will, all your lives, have some measure of power over the people that you serve. You certainly will wish only to help them, but to be a righteous priesthood holder, you must go beyond that. You must trust them and respect them. You must, in humility, allow their wisdom to compliment your own.

The prophet Joseph Smith observed, “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121: 37).

What does unrighteous dominion look like? Surely hardly any priesthood holder sets out to exercise unrighteous dominion or harm the people under his care. But in our church, we seek to be perfect, even as our Father in Heaven is perfect. We want to help others along their path to perfection. But what we sometimes fail to realize, to our cost, is that perfection does not mean uniformity. No one perfected, exalted being will be exactly the same as any other. In seeking to help others, we can sometimes impose upon them our own expectations of perfection. This is what unrighteous dominion looks like to me. We all feel the temptation to do it, but for the priesthood brethren, in their positions of authority, this imposition can be particularly damaging.
My sport of choice is middle eastern dance—belly dance. When I perform with my fellow dancers, I do so in stylistically appropriate costume. I’ve prayed about this personal decision to dance without a belly cover, and felt the Holy Ghost’s affirmation that this is a good decision for me and not disrespectful of my covenants or my body. However, if someday I move to a ward where the bishop disagrees with my choice, based on his own understanding of what constitutes appropriate dress and conduct, he could refuse to renew my temple recommend and cut me off from the house of the Lord. He has that power. You brethren, in your future callings as bishops and stake presidents, will have that power. You may be tempted to misuse it when someone else’s interpretation of a commandment or a scripture differs from your own. You may be tempted to misuse your authority now, when you disagree with a sister over the way she should speak, the clothes she should wear, or the activities in which she should participate. 

Elder Albert Choules, Jr., of the Seventy, informs us that "No man--
particularly one who bears the priesthood--
has the right to treat any woman unkindly, especially his wife, with whom he would hope to share eternal joy. Certainly unrighteous dominion cannot be excused on the mistaken notion that permission comes by being the husband, head of the family, and particularly under the umbrella or authority of the priesthood." Your priesthood office does not ever give you the right to treat any woman unkindly,
even if you are quite sure that you know better than she does how she should be seeking for perfection.
Please remember that her perfection may be very different from yours. Please respect her sacred right to make that choice for herself, based on her own counsel with our Heavenly Parents and her understanding of the Lord’s commandments. Allow her wisdom to broaden your own.

This brings me to my second point: bridle all your passions. When I was in the MTC, a companionship of sisters in my branch got the flu. During gym time, instead of exercising, they sat together in a quiet corner and rested. To pass the time, Sister Ogelvie took out a hairbrush and brushed out Sister Peterson’s hair while Sister Peterson quizzed her on Korean vocab words. Their extra study time was interrupted by an elder they didn’t know, who approached them and asked them to stop, because he found the sight of one woman brushing another’s hair to be uncomfortably provocative.

This elder thought he was being a righteous priesthood holder. He wished to keep his thoughts pure and virtuous. I can easily understand how he might have found these sisters distracting: they're both very pretty, and Sister Peterson has great hair. But instead of taking responsibility for his feelings and returning his focus to playing four-square, he tried to make these women control his thoughts for him.
e treated these two good sisters as distractions, or temptations, or walking-talking-sins-waiting-to-happen, rather than as fellow missionaries with the right to use their gym time as they saw fit. This conduct is unbecoming of a priesthood holder.

Elder M. Russell Ballard has observed that "Popular culture today often makes women look silly, inconsequential, mindless, and powerless. It objectifies them and disrespects them and then suggests that they are able to leave their mark on mankind only by seduction--
easily the most pervasively dangerous message the adversary sends to women about themselves." Brethren of the priesthood, when you judge a sister by her appearance, whether modest or immodest, you tell her the same thing: that her worth comes from her ability to appeal to YOU. The fact that you are better men than the cruel and selfish men of the world does not make this a better message.

The Lord instructed, “Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly” (121:45). A priesthood holder who lets virtue garnish his thoughts unceasingly still experiences distraction and temptation, as he should. But he can also see through that experience to a deeper truth.
He sees all people, male and female, beautiful and ugly, saint and sinner, for the beloved and powerful children of God that they are—no matter what they are wearing or whose hair they are brushing. Only then, when he sees them as the Savior would, can he serve them in a Christlike manner.

My third point may, perhaps, be the most uncomfortable, but bear with me: a righteous priesthood holder needs to get in touch with his feminine side. As Latter-Day Saints, we believe that the greatest joy and power comes from the synergy of masculine and feminine, not from the dominance of one over the other. We believe in Heavenly Parents, who love us in complementary ways. Our church is composed of both men and women, all of whom need the power of the priesthood in their lives. This power flows from Heavenly Parents of both genders to beloved children of both genders, but only you brethren are permitted to fully exercise it outside of the holy temple. To exercise that power fully and righteously, you must learn to be gentle as well as to be courageous.

“No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile . . .” (D&C 121: 41-42).

These traits . . . meekness, gentleness, kindness, innocence, and patience . . . are ones that our culture ascribes to women. But the brethren of the priesthood cannot afford to neglect these qualities. If you feel that women are better than you would be at being patient, kind, or loving, then look to them as your examples. You cannot delegate to them those parts of priesthood service that require feminine kindness; the responsibility is yours.

Someday, you may sit on a church disciplinary counsel, hearing the sin of some sister in your stake and deciding on appropriate consequences to help her to fully repent. There will be no other woman in the room, to comfort her, to commiserate with her, or to speak for her. That will be your job. You may not understand what she is going through or why she has made the choices that she has. In that moment, trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not unto your own understanding. You may not understand what it is like to be a woman struggling under the burden of sin, but Christ does. Ask him to teach you, so that you may understand this woman as another woman would, and judge righteous judgment without the limitations of your own mortality—the judgment and service that she needs to receive, rather than the kind you feel inclined or qualified to give.

That is the glory of the priesthood: it is a power of service, rather than of conquest. It is inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and can only be handled upon principles of righteousness. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ embodied these principles during his mortal ministry, in his conduct towards the woman taken in adultery, or the woman with an issue of blood, or Mary and Martha, or Mary Magdalene. I am constantly amazed and humbled by the good, priesthood-holding brethren in my life who courageously follow his example. They are wise, but not just through their own learning: they trust in and rely upon my wisdom, and they look to the Lord for a more complete understanding of how they may best serve his children. They bridle all their passions, and see me as a human being deserving of respect more than as an object of desire or temptation. And they are in touch with the feminine qualities of kindness, humility, and love that allow me, a woman, to feel safe under their stewardship. I know that the power of the priesthood is real, that it is divine, and that it is the power of God unto humanity for their protection and salvation. It was restored in our day through the prophet Joseph Smith and is even now going forth to bless all the human family. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.