Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Women in the Scriptures Challenge

A few years ago I started keeping a notebook of all the women I found in the scriptures.

I kept track of all the named women, unnamed women, references to women, any mention of wombs, breast, menstruation or any other reference to women's bodies and functions. Reading the scriptures through the lens of women completely changed my perspective and understanding of the scriptures. I use to dread personal scripture study and sometimes even fell asleep during it... gasp, you've never done that have you? I had a hard time relating to the stories, especially in the Old Testament, but when I discovered the women in the stories a whole new world opened up to me.

I realized that these women lived lives not too different from mine, they struggled, fought, cried, doubted, bore children, breastfed, loved men passionately, and most importantly... they lived. They were real women who had real struggles and learned important lessons that were unique to women. I no longer fall asleep during scripture study but am excited every day to discover a new woman and a new story that I can relate to. I understand now the wisdom behind what Nephi said when he told us to "liken the scriptures" unto ourselves (1 Ne. 19: 23-24).

In view of this I have issued a standing challenge for all my readers... The Women in the Scripture Challenge... if you are super brave and daring you can take the Full Challenge or if you are semi-brave and somewhat daring you can take the Half challenge.

The Full Challenge

1) In the next year (ideally) read the ENTIRE standard works, Old and New Testaments, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price. You don't necessarily have to start with the Old Testament you can start in wherever book you like. You can even just start from where you are in your personal scripture study right now.

2) Keep a journal of all the women you find mentioned, this includes named and unnamed women. This should be a journal just dedicated to women in the scriptures. Hint... it will probably be much bigger than you think it needs to be. 

2a) If you don't want to keep a journal another option is to mark your scriptures with the same color whenever you find  stories or references to women. Here is how I have marked mine in case you need a visual example.

3) In this journal write down questions, thoughts or inspirations that come to you as you read about these women's lives. Here are some questions you might like to ask yourself when you discover a new woman.

4) Let God teach you new truths about what it means to be a daughter of God.

The Half Challenge

This challenge is the same as the full challenge except that you aren't undertaking the entire standard works. Pick one book of scripture and read it from start to finish specifically looking for women and their stories. Write each one down in a scripture journal and record what you learn-- or mark them in your scriptures.

By far the Old Testament has the most women but it is also the longest. The New Testament has some remarkable women that I'm sure most people haven't ever heard about. The Book of Mormon will surprise you with how many women you'll find. The Doctrine and Covenants might disappoint you-- it is a book of revelations not a history book like the other books. The Pearl of Great Price has some amazing stories of women that will boggle your mind.

The Half Challenge could easily turn into a Full Challenge... or at least a 3/4 challenge... once you get rolling.

Are you brave enough?

If you decide you are brave enough to accept this challenge then grab this button and stick in on your blog, or wherever you like, to remind you that you are committed.

Women in the Scriptures

When you've completed the challenge-- either the full or the half-- I would love to hear about your experience and what you've learned.

This journey is one that should be shared.

I can bear testimony that embarking on this challenge in any way will dramatically alter your perspective of the scriptures. You will find women, stories, and eternal truths that you didn't even know existed. They will literally jump out at you from the pages. You may also come to realize more fully what it means to be a child of God and and feel more deeply God's love for all His daughters.

If taken with faith and prayer this challenge could possibly be a life changing event.

Is that bold of me to say?

Take the challenge and find out.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Importance of Birth

One of the things I've noticed as I've studied the scriptures is that birth is an over arching theme in the stories of the women in the scriptures. A good portion of the stories about women in the scriptures center around women's ability to bear, or inability to bear, children.

Personally, the births of my children have been incredible spiritual experiences for me and have completely changed my outlook on life and eternity. I've gained great spiritual strength through the birth process and a closer relationships with my Heavenly Father and Mother. As I've reflected on my own experiences and as I read about the important role birth plays in the lives of the women of the scriptures I am prompted to believe the ability to give life is a central part of what it means to be an eternal woman and that the birth process is incredibly important to God.

A friend pointed out that in the Proclamation to the Family it says, "We declare the means by which mortal life is created to be divinely appointed." The means by which mortal life is created is through the processes of conception, pregnancy and birth. It stands to reason that if God designed the way children are conceived to be deeply and powerfully symbolic of a man and a woman becoming "one flesh" (Genesis 2 :24) then He has also designed the way children are born into this world to be deeply and powerfully symbolic.

In order to understand the symbolism and meaning behind labor and birth, and to understand why so many of the stories of women in the scriptures center around birth, we have to go back to Eve and the Garden.

Two Trees

When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden he planted two trees, the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. He told Adam and Eve that there would be consequences if they ate of the tree of knowledge but ".... nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee;" (Moses 3:17)

We know that Eve exercised the agency God had given her and chose to partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Through modern day revelation we know that what we she did was for the benefit of mankind and that by partaking of the fruit she was fulfilling her divine mission as a woman. In his talk "What It Means to Be a Daughter of God" James E. Faust said:

We all owe a great debt of gratitude to Eve... The choice was really between a continuation of their comfortable existence in Eden, where they would never progress, or a momentous exit into mortality with its opposites: pain, trials, and physical death in contrast to joy, growth, and the potential for eternal life. In contemplating this choice, we are told, “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, … and a tree to be desired to make her wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and also gave unto her husband with her, and he did eat.” And thus began their earthly probation and parenthood. . . . If it hadn’t been for Eve, none of us would be here."
Eve was fulfilling her divine purpose when she partook of the tree of knowledge. From the foundations of the world she had been chosen and named as "the mother of all living" and she knew that in order to fulfill her mission she must partake of the fruit and become like God. She also knew that she wouldn't be able to fulfill her divine role without Adam's help and so she got Adam to partake of the fruit. The scriptures don't say she had to deceive or trick Adam into eating it, rather it seems that Adam "hearkened" unto his wife and agreed to the transgression so that Eve would be able to fulfill her divine calling.

Just as Eve was set apart to be the "mother of all living" from the foundations of the world, Adam was set apart to be the great High Priest of the earth with the responsibility to hold the keys and perform the saving ordinances that would bring the children of God back into His presence. Joseph Smith taught:
" The Priesthood is an everlasting principle, and existed with God from eternity… Christ is the Great High Priest; Adam next... the priesthood was first given to Adam; he obtained... it in the Creation, before the world was formed” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938, pp. 157–58)
Adam hearkened first to Eve's divine mission and now, as Adam and Eve progress through their probationary time (Genesis 3: 22, 24), it is Eve's turn to hearken to Adam. God has designed a beautiful partnership in which Adam helps Eve fulfill her mission to bring God's children into the world; after which it is Eve's turn to hearken and help Adam fulfill his mission to bring those children unto Christ, the tree of life, and back into God's presence.

I don't think that it is any coincidence that God placed two people, male and female, in the garden and also planted two trees in the garden... two people, two trees, two divine responsibilities.

Two Veils

While the trees which God planted in the Garden of Eden have multiple levels of meaning one way in which they may be interpreted is as representing the two veils that all mankind must pass through on their journey towards exaltation.

The first veil that all mankind passes through is the veil of birth in which man is born into the world by water, blood and the spirit. Women have a stewardship over this first veil. When Eve partook of the tree of knowledge she became more like God, knowing good from evil and gaining the capacity to bear children. Eve's transgression "opened the matrix", as it says in Exodus 34:19, the womb, the gateway through which the souls of all mankind would pass through into the mortal world. The only possible way to enter this mortal world is through the body of a woman and by the shedding of her blood... there is no other way.

The second veil is the veil we must pass through in order to re-enter the presence of God and continue on our eternal journey. Men have a stewardship over this second veil. Just like Adam, righteous men hold the priesthood keys and administer the ordinances which cleanse us from our sins and enable us to come back into the presence of God. Just like the first veil, the second veil requires a sacrifice of blood, water and spirit. Through His Atonement Jesus Christ performed this great and last sacrifice for all mankind. Just as women are the only gateways into the mortal world, Christ is the only gateway into the eternal world... there is no other way.
These two veils are described in Moses 6: 59 which reads:

"That by reason of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory;"
It is also interesting to note, and personally I don't think it is any coincidence, that the mother's side of the placenta (the organ the mother's body creates to house the baby and sustain its life) looks like a tree (for a bloody picture click here and for a non-bloody picture click here). The "fruit" of this placental tree is a baby.

This is Eve's gift to us... the promise of birth. That through our mothers, the daughters of Eve, all of God's children will partake of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and literally become the fruit of that tree. Through the power of God they will be born into this world through blood, water and the spirit and will be given a probationary time. During this probationary time it is the role of mothers and fathers to help their children to become worthy to pass through the second veil, the tree of life, through the water, blood, and spirit of Jesus Christ. This is Adam's gift to us---as the High Priest of this earth acting in authority for Jesus Christ--- the promise of re-birth.
In his talk "Equality Through Diversity" Elder M. Russell Ballard explained:
Our Heavenly Father assigned different responsibilities in mortality to men and women when we lived with Him as His spirit sons and daughters. To His sons He would give the priesthood and the responsibilities of fatherhood, and to His daughters He gave the responsibilities of motherhood, each with its attendant functions.

The creation of the world, the atonement of Jesus Christ, and the restoration of the gospel in the latter days through the Prophet Joseph Smith all have one unifying purpose: to allow all of the spirit children of our Eternal Father to obtain mortal bodies, and then, through the gift of moral agency, to follow the plan of redemption made possible by the Savior’s atonement. God prepared all of this for us that we might return to our heavenly home, clothed in immortality and eternal life, to live with Him as families.
Two Divine Stewardships

I've often heard women express pain over the fact the LDS church (and most religions in general) are so male centered-- only men hold the priesthood keys, there are much fewer women in the scriptures than men, and while we know we have a Heavenly Mother we don't hear much about her. These are questions that eat away at many LDS women's (and men's) hearts and make it hard for some of them to remain true to their faith. Yet when we remember that we have already passed through the first veil, over which women preside, and are now working towards the second veil, over which men preside, it makes much more sense why our world is so male centered. 

Besides, who knows, if we could only glimpse into the pre-mortal world and see the other side of the veil would we see a world which was very female centered because the focus is on preparing children to go through the first veil? Would we see women (and men) working with their Heavenly Mother to prepare souls of mankind to receive their mortal bodies, teaching them their pre-mortal lessons, and guiding them to their earthly homes? Maybe.

We really don't know much about the pre-mortal world. Yet one thing we do know is that before we were born we received instruction that would prepare us for our individual labors in the Lord's vineyard. In D&C 138: 56 we read about the "noble and great ones" and how, "Even before they were born, they, with many others, received their first lessons in the world of spirits and were prepared to come forth in the due time of the Lord to labor in his vineyard for the salvation of the souls of men." 

Given how incredible it is that women's bodies are able to create complete human beings, without their minds directing how it will happen, it seems possible to me that part of the "first lessons" women received in the pre-mortal world was how to create bodies. While their mortal minds don't remember how to do it, perhaps their eternal spirits do and it is a woman's eternal soul which directs and guides her body in the construction of the baby and oversees the process of labor and birth.
We also know that in the pre-mortal existence that Satan and a third of the host of heaven rejected God's plan to come to earth and receive mortal bodies (D&C 29:36). Because they were not faithful in keeping their first estate Satan and his third are the only ones out of God's children that will never pass through the first veil; no woman will ever create a body for them or shed her blood by bearing them into the world, nor will they ever have wives or children. This is one of the reasons that many of Satan's tactics are directed at women and at the structure which protects and guards the first veil... the family. Satan is doing everything in his power to convince women that their bodies, which are the gateway through the first veil, are dirty, ugly, imperfect, dysfunctional and of no importance. He is doing everything he can to distract and confuse women so that they abandon their responsibility as the guardians of life into this world. If he can destroy women's faith in their bodies and help them lose sight of the importance of the first veil---and the power and sanctity of conception, pregnancy and birth--- then he is well on his way to thwarting God's plan.

Satan is also trying to convince women that men's stewardship over the second veil is more important than their stewardship over the first veil and their role as what Valerie Hudson Cassler calls "the caretakers of light", referring to the great work that women do as mothers towards pointing children towards the light and love of Christ. In her book "Women in Eternity, Women of Zion" Cassler says:
"... there is a sequence to the stewardships which leads to misperception of the absolute equality of the stewardship. The caretakers of light, in their work as mothers, must perform their work for an individual before the caretakers of the Word [referring to men's riesthoof ordinance responsibility]... Because of this fact, the full drama of the work of the caretakers of light is muted. We don't see how some accepted the offering made by the caretakers of light, and thus the sacrifice of the caretakers of light seems common. Their very sacrifice in their work as mothers is concealed because of its perceived commonness. Pregnancy, labor, delivery and breastfeeding are concealed as far as their full drama and their full glory are concerned. The sacrifice of blood and water--- sometimes even the very sacrifice of life itself by the caretaker of light-- is usually not seen by the family or the community, but rather by a birth professional- a doctor or a midwife.

... We no longer see the drama and we value less the gateway and the sacrifice that brought us here. Even the caretakers of light themselves begin to view their works as mothers as ordinary, menial and dirty instead of the glorious stewardship it really is. Only young children seem to recognize the importance of the work of the caretakers of light and reward it with complete devotion." (pg, 149)

Women's stewardship over the gateway of life and their roles as mother's is not less important in the plan of salvation than the priesthood ordinance, the re-birth, work men do. God has given both men and women great gifts and powers which must be respected and used with wisdom and righteousness. I believe that how women birth and how children come into this world matters deeply to God. I feel that He expects the processes of conception, pregnancy and birth to be treated with the same type of reverence and faith with which we approach priesthood ordinances. I also believe that He expects women to protect their wombs, honor their ability to give life, and to participate in cultural and medical practices which bear witness to the divinity and power of women's bodies and the birth process.

God has different plans for each of His children and each is a unique spirit so it makes sense that each child's birth will be different, each woman's body will be different, and every situation will be different. Yet no matter what the situation women can counsel with God and receive direct revelation concerning their bodies, their pregnancy, their labor and their birth. There are numerous examples of women in the scripture who turned to God to understand how, when and why they were going to give birth and God answered them with direct revelation. These birth stories are some of the few examples we have of women receiving personal and direct revelation from God. I believe that they teach us that God is very interested in birth and in the experiences women have while giving birth. 

I also know from my own experience birthing my children that no child comes into this world unaccompanied and that God sends angels to be with them as they enter this world. I also know that God sends angels to laboring women to help them as they birth His children into the light of the world. The veil is thin for a woman in labor and if she is listening she is able to feel the power of God in an incredibly powerful way. For a few hours she becomes a wide open portal into heaven, foreordained from the foundations of the world to bring the children of heaven into this mortal world. What a great blessing it is that God has such faith in His daughters to entrust them with such a great power! It is just another testament to me that God loves His daughters just as much as He loves His sons and that they both have divine gifts which make His work possible.

It is important to note the the idea of the two trees and two veils originated with Valerie Hudson Cassler in her book "Women in Eternity, Women of Zion" . If you'd like to read more about her ideas visit this excellent post

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What Mary Felt

Tonight I am singing a solo at our church Christmas dinner for the adults. I am terrified. I've never sung by myself... ever. I think I'd rather speak in front of a million people than sing in front of 50, but I need to sing this song.

The woman in charge of the program called me a few days ago and said that she'd been thinking about me for awhile and felt strongly that she should ask me to sing a certain song for the Christmas program. I was kind of surprised because we have several incredible, I repeat incredible, singers and musicians in our church. Then I heard the song she wanted me to sing and I knew exactly why she wanted me to sing it.

The song is called "What Mary Felt" by Wanda Lindstrom (if you'd like to hear it you can hear a preview here or spend 99 well spent cents to download it.)

The song is the story of a woman who is asked to let her baby play the part of Jesus in the Nativity. As she watches her son symbolically play the part of baby Jesus she reflects, "Is this what Mary felt when she was chosen to be the blessed mother of the Lord? And did she ever feel that heavy burden, when she had to give him up to save the world?

It is a powerful song with a deep message and happens to be written for a low alto... perfect. It is also perfect for me, not only because I have a new baby, but because my son was born not long before Christmas and throughout his pregnancy, labor and birth I felt such a sisterhood to Mary. Not only was I amazed that she went anywhere on a donkey at nine months pregnant... that in itself makes her an incredible woman in my eyes... but I realized what a great sacrifice she made by being willing to sacrifice her son for the sins of the world. As I held my own first born son in my arms I reflected on the great joy and sorrow she must have felt on holding Jesus in her arms. Did her heart rejoice knowing who he was and what he would become? Did it break when she thought of what he would suffer and what would be required of him?

I wrote this is a previous post about Mary and it still captures my feeling about Mary exactly:
"We often talk about how much God loves us because He was willing to sacrifice His son, but Jesus was Mary's son just as much as He was God's son. What great love Mary must have had for all human souls to be willing to offer her son as a sacrifice for all our sins. What a magnificent and amazing woman she must have been. One can only imagine how her soul must have rejoiced at what glorious blessings awaited the world, but how at the same time her heart must have broken into pieces knowing what she knew her son would have to suffer. My soul rejoices in her and I will be forever grateful to this magnificent and beautiful woman for all her sacrifices and the immensity of her love."
Tonight as I sing I am going to try to keep an image of her holding her newborn son in her arms, crying with joy and sorrow because of the gift God has given her. I hope I'll be able to transmit some of her great love across through my singing.

I'm still terrified.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

"Not Good for Man to be Alone..."

I took Advanced Placement (A.P.) Physics when I was in High School. The first semester there were about 15 girls in the class,but by the second semester there were only four of us left. It was a hard class. To this day I'm not quite sure what compelled me to stick it out, but I did. One day, a few days into the semester, the teacher took us four girls aside and thanked us for being in his class. He said that some years he didn't have any girls stick it out to the second semester and that those years were always the hardest. He said, "The dynamics of the class are different when it is all boys. It gets kind of rough. It changes things completely to have girls in the class."

I've been thinking a lot about what my physics teacher said because I just finished reading "Lord of the Flies" by William Golding. The story is about a group of boys, ages 6-12, who get stranded on an island by themselves. Things start out fine but by the end of the book everything is out of control and they are hunting and killing one another. It is a powerful commentary on human nature and the condition of our world today. While there are many interesting ideas brought up in the book the main thing I was struck by in this book is that these boys are "girl-less"; there isn't one girl or woman on the entire island. I couldn't help but wonder how different the story would have turned out if there had been a female presence on the island. Would just having girls in the mix have, like my physics teacher said, changed everything?

I'm inclined to think it would have.

Remember that not long after creating Adam and placing him in Eden God states "... It is not good that the man should be alone..." (Genesis 2:18). God then creates Eve whom He describes as a "help meet" or a "an aid or helper worthy of Adam" (James M. Harper, 1990). God doesn't leave Adam alone in the world by himself very long because there wouldn't have been anything for Adam to do there by himself except pet the animals and swim in the rivers. Adam needed Eve in order to fulfill his purpose on this earth and likewise Eve needed Adam to fulfill her purpose. Without each other they would have been nothing and God's work would never have gone forth. There is a beautiful balance created when men and women are equally paired and when they are working on a common goal. Neither man or woman is complete, in a spiritual sense, without one another.

The other thought I had when I was reading "Lord of the Flies" was that one of the reasons the world we live in now is so full of violence, inequality and hatred is because some people are trying to live as if women don't exist or that they aren't important. There are places in the world where women's voices and freedoms are smothered and silenced; places where women don't have the right to make their own choices concerning their bodies, their marriages, their children, or their futures. These women are living in a world that doesn't value them or care about what they have to contribute as individuals. If it wasn't for the fact that women can be sexual objects and can bear children they may as well not exist as far as some men are concerned. These men are trying to live as if it was good for man to be alone... just as long as he is able to use the women every so often to get children.

This type of attitude wasn't what God intended for relationships between men and women to become. God's great work will not be done by men only, nor by women only, but by men and women working together as equal partners. Satan knows this and he is doing everything in his power to convince men that they don't need women and women that they don't need men.This is a great lie and I feel it is one of the main reasons our world so closely resembles the Hellish type of society the boys in "Lord of Flies" created for themselves.

I feel strongly that if we are ever going to create a Zion like world, one in which there is no violence, inequality or hatred, men and women are going to have to remember that they need one another and that they are equals before God. We need the talents and gifts of both men and women to accomplish God's work. We will never heal our world if men continue to exclude women from their social, political and spiritual arenas and if women begin to do the same. Such a future looks bleak; not much different from the hopeless situation the boys in "Lord of the Flies" found themselves in or the rough state of an A.P physics class without girls.

It is not good for man to be alone. It is not good for woman to be alone. We need each other... desperately.