Friday, December 12, 2008

Women Who Know, Part One

This post is my (partial) response to

The site was created in response to a talk given by Sister Julie B. Beck, General Relief Society President, in the October 2007 General Conference.

I hesitated to even include the link in this post; actually, I questioned whether I should even offer this rebuttal. Sometimes the best rebuttal is a refusal to dignify the opposing viewpoint with the courtesy of acknowledgement that is implied in a response. Perhaps I've heard one too many criticisms of general church leaders recently and this was the final straw, or maybe this is pure self-indulgence of my own need to articulate where I stand. Whatever the reason, step back, 'cause it here it comes, point by point.

1.) "Fathers as well as mothers, men as well as women, are called to nurture." Nowhere in Sister Beck's talk does she state or imply that nurturing is the sole province of women. Her address is to women and about women; it is not addressed to men or about men. In discussing the God-given role of women as nurturers Sister Beck reiterates truth as revealed in The Family: A Proclamation to the World, that mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture and teaching of their children. If we accept that the Proclamation is the word of God, given through His prophet, how can we be offended when His word is quoted to us? I could take this thought even further, that if we believe in and sustain our prophet as the one authorized to exercise all priesthood keys and to lead the church under the direction of Jesus Christ--a fundamental tenet of our religion--then we also believe that Sister Beck has been called of God and is speaking through the guidance of His Spirit.

Splitting hairs over gender divisions has long been a favorite tactic of those who feel the need to criticize the Church, and to be honest, it's one that I don't understand. Far too often the arguments end up based in semantics rather than ideas, and I suspect this is one of those times. Divine truth--God's truth--is timeless. Attempts to put His truth into words are as successful as the mortal lips forming them or fingers writing them. Sometimes we come pretty close to capturing pure truth in words. Sometimes we fail miserably. The efficacy of our efforts doesn't negate the Truth we're attempting to tell. "God shall give unto you knowledge by his Holy Spirit, yea, by the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost..." (Doctrine & Covenants 121: 26). Truth can only be comprehended Spirit-to-spirit, so it behooves each of us not only to seek the inspiration and guidance of the Spirit in receiving truth, but to actively pursue confirmation of truth spoken or shared by other imperfect mortals like ourselves.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland warned about attempts to apply worldly wisdom to gospel truth: "In matters of religion a skeptical mind is not a higher manifestation of virtue than is a believing heart, and analytical deconstruction in the field of, say, literary fiction can be just plain old-fashioned destruction when transferred to families yearning for faith at home" (Jeffrey R. Holland, “A Prayer for the Children,” Liahona, May 2003, 85–87).

Using feminist rhetoric or gendered discourse to debate revealed truth seems to me to be something like attempting to dissect a cadaver with a steak knife: when you use the wrong tool for the job you wind up frustrated, making a big mess, and inevitably hurting yourself and others around you.

2.) "Individuals and relationships flourish when we are able to share not only our strengths but also our mutual imperfections and needs." Apparently the website creators take issue with Sister Beck's call for latter-day saint women to strive for the best--to be the best homemakers, the best mothers, the best in the world at supporting and strengthening families. In her call to step up and do what the Lord would have us do Sister Beck is once again building on restored truth. The Proclamation urges both men and women to devote their best efforts to supporting and strengthening families. Anyone who has been awake through even a few LDS ward, stake, or general meetings can't miss the emphasis on families. This is not a cultural expectation; this is revelation from the Lord.

I believe it's important to make clear that Sister Beck asked us to BE the best. Not act the best, not look the best, not project the most perfect image, which seems to be the website creators' concern, if I'm understanding them correctly. Far from being a 'narrowly prescribed list,' the realm of what constitutes 'best' in motherhood, homemaking, or womanhood in general, is as unique and perfect as each woman.

In calling us to action, Sister Beck is doing nothing other than fulfilling her divine mandate to lead the sisters of the church. Recently in the 2008 General Relief Society Conference she said, "You are doing a magnificent work. Yet we feel impressed to say that there is more to be done. We have sought inspiration from the Lord to know how to assist the priesthood in building up the kingdom of God on the earth. It is time for Relief Society to fulfill its purpose as never before" (RS General Meeting, September 27, 2008). If she has been called of God, if she is speaking under the direction of His Spirit, clearly we as sisters have work to do.

When we allow cultural or self-imposed expectations to guide our behavior or understanding of what "best" is, we set ourselves up for failure, resentment, envy, and unhappiness. When we humbly seek the Lord's guidance to follow His counsel, guilt falls away. Happiness results from doing His work, in whatever sphere He sets us to labor in the vineyard. As I ponder Sister Beck's injunction to be the best--or any other counsel given by any other leader, for that matter--I'm reminded of the scripture verse my children are learning right now: "...I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them" (3 Nephi 3:7). We can argue with counsel given or we can roll up our sleeves and, with His help, go to work.

3.) "Cleanliness depends upon access to resources and has more to do with priorities than purity of heart." I have to admit to being genuinely puzzled by this one. After reading and rereading Sister Beck's talk I can't find any references to cleanliness. She discusses the importance of having an organized, orderly home, but other than mentioning washing dishes as part of homemaking, no specific mention is made of cleanliness. Last night I taught my English class about the importance of avoiding common fallacies in constructing an argument and I'm tempted to use this as a perfect example. Muddying the waters might score an emotional point, but it ultimately undercuts the argument, and more importantly, is not truthful.

In urging women to create a climate for spiritual growth in their homes, in part through keeping an orderly home, Sister Beck is, once again, only teaching and testifying of gospel truth. Doctrine & Covenants 88:119 is oft-quoted on this topic: "Organize yourselves, prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God." If anything, Sister Beck was more general and vague about how to accomplish this than others have been in the past.

She did not establish minimum standards of organization or cleanliness, or imply in any way that some sisters were better off spiritually than others because of greater organizational or homemaking skills. We do those kinds of destructive comparisons ourselves. Given the diversity of our church sisterhood around the globe, Sister Beck's counsel seems to be a wise and careful call for improvement for all us, each in our own homes, with our own unique set of skills, challenges, and blessings.

4.) "Housework is something that grownups do and that children learn by example and instruction." The primary complaint here seems to be gender-based, so I refer back to number one. However, for reasons I can't quite fathom, the authors also seem to take issue with Sister Beck's counsel that we teach our children homemaking skills by working side-by-side with them together in our homes. If children learn only through 'example and instruction,' when will they ever DO the things they are 'learning'?

It seems to me that what Sister Beck is suggesting is a teaching/learning model similar to what the Savior uses; that is, that we learn by doing. "If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself" (John 7:17). In the prophet Alma's great discourse on faith (Alma 32) he counsels for a similar investment of work in order to gain the desired knowledge and skill.

If our goal as a church and as individual men and women is first and foremost to build, strengthen, and defend families, and teaching our children to work or keep an orderly home is secondary to that primary goal, or only one part of a broader purpose, it stands to reason that achieving that broader purpose side-by-side, hand-in-hand with our children is the very essence of what the Lord is hoping for us.

5.) "We reverence the responsibility to choose how, when, and whether we become parents." Ah--I was waiting for this one! From the moment I heard Sister Beck boldly proclaim that "mothers who know bear children" I knew Satan would be pushing buttons to get women riled up.

What a silly one to be upset about! I burst out laughing when I read that part of the counter-response to Sister Beck's address was based on the validity of adoption and fostering as viable means of mothering. To put it in the most intellectual terms I can think of: DUH!

We've been reminded several times lately (the Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting in February comes to mind) that the Lord's commandment to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force. We've been reminded that creating bodies for His spirit children is a divine mandate. It was Sister Beck who lovingly taught everyone in the Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting that the desire for children is part of our divine nature as women, and our ability (or lack thereof) to bear children or opportunity (or lack thereof) in this life in no way diminishes the reality of our eternal identity.

Bringing children into the world and into a family is perhaps one of the most personal choices we ever make. Sister Beck didn't tell anyone how to make those choices. She simply reiterated what we should already know: that mothers who know bear children. They don't avoid mothering for selfish or silly reasons. Those who are unable to physically bear children aren't under condemnation. Those who prayerfully and carefully, together with their spouses, create a family as they feel led by God to do, are doing exactly what they should be doing, whether that family is a family of two or twenty.

Last night I talked on the phone for awhile with one of my daughter's birthmoms. She doesn't share my specific religious faith. She conceived my daughter out of wedlock, which, from a religious standpoint, was certainly less than ideal. Yet there is no doubt in my mind that, using Sister Beck's talk as the qualifier, she is a "mother who knows." She knew this baby deserved life, and she sacrificed considerably to provide it. She knew this baby deserved a family, and she sacrificed even more to ensure that my daughter got it. She knew that God had a plan for this little baby, and she sought and received direction and confirmation in bringing that plan about. She is no less a "mother who knows" because of her pivotal role in my daughter's life than I am less of a "mother who knows" because I am merely raising my daughter without conceiving and birthing her myself.

'Mothers who know' support the Lord's plan of happiness for His children. Families are pivotal to that plan, and mothers are pivotal to families.


Lisa said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said. It blows my mind how this talk has been distorted in order for people to criticize it. I heard someone compare Sister Beck to Martha Stewart in her expectations. Huh??? Did they even hear the same talk I heard? I also heard about how this talk was so insensitive to all the infertile women out there. Well, I'm as infertile as ever, and I thought that it built me up and honored all my desires and efforts.

I LOVED this talk! It is one of my favorite talks of all time.

It also blows my mind that there are people and websites where the dissecting of conference talks and other words of Church leaders is expected and encouraged. I honestly never knew this "tradition" existed! When I listen to a conference talk, it never occurs to me to analyze it. Some I like better than others. Some seem more relevant to my life at that moment than others. But I accept it all as inspired counsel, and if there is something that I struggle with, I assume that the problem lies with me.

(I also loved that talk by Elder Holland. I remember it well.)

Christiejo said...

I love your insightful comments Wendy. This is one of my favorite talks to mothers along with the talk that Elder Ballard gave to young mothers.

Unfortunately, when she gave this talk I knew that there would be many that would be riled up. How dare she suggest that our houses should be orderly?! That is an insult! By the way, I am not a perfect housekeeper. Does that mean I should be offended? And the bearing of children.... well, bearing doesn't just mean to carry children and birth them. It means to raise and to nurture them. As I mentioned to someone, the having of children certainly isn't as hard as the raising of children.

Unfortunately, people who take issue with Julie Beck, President Monson and the Proclamation on the Family, seem to have forgotten the most basic tenets of our doctrine. We come to earth to gain bodies and experience and prove to Heavenly Father that amidst all distraction we will still follow Him, so that He can bless us with greater responsibility and opportunity.

Our employment and other things that the world hypes as being the primary sources of fulfillment are really only to provide for us materially so that we can physically and emotionally support our families which are the basic and most essential unit for helping to fulfill Heavenly Father's plan. If we forget those basic tenets, we will lose the whole purpose of the Gospel.