03 February 2014

What Pants Cost

One Wednesday night a few months ago, I found myself sitting at a keyboard in the church building, playing through a lovely piece to see if I could pick it up quickly enough to accompany a group of youth in a few days. In just a few bars I knew I wouldn't have time to learn the piece well enough to accompany, so I lost myself in the music and let it carry me along as I softly sang the words and felt the piece out.

It ebbed and swelled, words resonating in my heart. And as my hands moved over the keys, I wandered into days past, when I wasn't a last-minute substitute, but the first called. When I knew I had the respect and trust of my brothers and sisters, both in and out of leadership.

I belonged.

I contributed meaningfully to the workings of my congregation every week, I had purpose, and felt the love of God flow through me and make a difference . . . it was continually renewed joy to me.

And I wept.

I wept to think of the joy I missed in the past year, of the very real probability that I will not be considered as a Seminary Teacher . . . or any kind of teacher, for that matter . . . for years. Possibly ever. As my ward struggles to fill music callings, I've been released from the one I cherished and passed over as they've filled others . . . and still, our ward music program struggles. And our ward struggles with music. I wept for the feeling of isolation and superficiality that has overlaid my interactions with ward members, and for the knowledge that it might be years before any of it shifts.

And my heart broke a little more, thinking back to this day, when everything seemed so simple.

I had learned, a couple of months before, there was no official guideline prohibiting women from wearing slacks to church. (?!?!?!?!?) I was so excited . . . I could be warm!!!! And to not have my active 3-year-old exposing my knees and slip and legs when he climbed into and out of my lap over and over from his play on the floor during Sacrament meeting. And to be warm. And comfortable. And did I mention I'd be warm? And to wear shoes that didn't require me to mince along in the ice and snow, praying I wouldn't fall with my arms loaded with the Sunday bag, purse, and often a toddler. Shoes that wouldn't make me worry that if we had car trouble or slid on the ice I'd be helpless due to lack of decent footgear. And I'd be warm.

That was it. It was all about clothes that made sense for my situation, that met my needs in the winter, and were warm.

I wonder, if I had had the faintest idea of what wearing totally acceptable, modest, conservative, nice black slacks would cost me, if I still would have done it. I'm not really sure.

You see, I wore slacks to church for a couple of weeks in the early Spring, nearing a year ago. My husband and I were called in to talk with the bishop after those two weeks, just before we left for two weeks to visit family out of state. It was a tense 90 minutes, that interview, most of which was spent hashing and rehashing why it was I was wearing pants to church, and whether or not I was staging some kind of private protest. There had been complaints, you see, from one or more mothers of Primary children, whose daughter(s) had asked why they couldn't wear pants to church, after they saw me in Primary. (I was the pianist.) And there had been gossip. (Hence the concern about protest.) Vern and I left that interview exhausted, but feeling that things were back on a relatively even keel. We went on our trip, enjoyed it thoroughly, and our first Sunday back began the Six Sundays from Hell.

That first Sunday I was released from my Primary pianist calling (they had called a replacement while I was away). The only way I can describe the feeling I had after that interview was like being slapped around spiritually. I was so confused. That release was the first I've ever been surprised by. Ever. In 25 years. And the new calling extended was even more confusing--accepting it made me physically ill. Calling back and retracting my acceptance was more confusing yet. But it was the answer I got from heaven, and it brought harmony with the Holy Spirit. So that's what I chose to do.

The second Sunday the Bishop gave a long and notably impassioned Sacrament talk, the self-announced theme of which was "Lift Where You Stand"--which he told the congregation, in plain language, meant accepting the callings extended to you, no matter what.

The third Sunday, within the first ten minutes of Vern's Gospel Doctrine lesson, he was pressured and pushed by a socially powerful, forceful but well-respected member of our ward to teach that following the mortal leaders of our church was the way to salvation. A few people got up and left the room, it was so tense. (Vern simply could not agree--he took his responsibility as a teacher seriously, and felt if he taught anything other than that we should follow Christ and His word that he would be damned. And this person would not let up, even talking to Vern after the class. If you know Vern, you'll know that not only was stressful for him, but he felt deeply betrayed by this person who had been one of his best friends. They are cordial now, but the friendship simply isn't the same as before. I'm not sure it can ever be, with such a fundamental difference in allegiance.)

The fourth week, Vern was able to teach the lesson he had attempted the previous week, "Avoiding Personal Apostasy". And after that week's meetings were over, he was released from his calling as Gospel Doctrine teacher in the most abrupt and awkward way we've ever experienced, in yet another horribly uncomfortable interview. In that same interview I was offered another calling that, again, I had to refuse a few days later after a lot of prayer.

The fifth Sunday in this series, I offered one of the prayers in Sacrament Meeting, and a counselor in the bishopric gave a talk titled "Avoiding Personal Apostasy", which was the utter antithesis of everything Vern had taught two weeks before. It was twenty-plus minutes consisting of "obey your leaders blindly and you'll be saved; disagree or disobey and go to hell, for they are the mouthpieces of God, and will not be allowed to lead us astray".

The final, sixth week, directly after Sacrament Meeting, we were called in and had an incredibly charged "talk" with two of our 13-year-old son's priesthood quorum leaders who insisted, with the combined force of their leadership positions, their bull-like personalities, and the permission of their consciences that we force him to attend every activity and every meeting whether he wanted to or not. (It took us forty minutes, the first twenty of which were sheer torture, emotion running high, to convince them we were serious about wanting our son to learn to make his own choices while he was home. To make his mistakes now, where we could support him through them.)

Then, someone handed me an envelope, my name printed by computer on it,at the beginning of Relief Society third hour, saying they found it on the piano. It held a print out of a General Conference talk I knew well, by Elder Oaks, titled "The Language of Prayer", with pertinent sections highlighted to point out how I needed to correct my prayer language of the week before. I felt a heavy irony, for I had quoted that very talk to encourage others to pray "properly" when I was in high school and in college. I had abandoned that about halfway through my twenties when I realized that praying "right" wasn't anything like as important as simply praying.

(I abandoned the archaic "language of prayer" months before that ill-fated prayer, experimenting to see if it would help my prayers. It did--incredibly. And while I tried to "do it right" in front of the ward, (and I thought I had!), Vern told me later I had flipped back and forth between the King James formal and the modern familiar. I facepalmed, but didn't think much more about it. Lesson learned: either pray according to the Holy Ghost unworried about my language, or concentrate like mad on my language and let the prayer be wooden and useless. I choose the former, thanks.)

If someone handed me something like that now, I would shake my head and toss it in the garbage, with no real harm done. I'm to a point now where misbehavior from my ward no longer surprises me, and I'm moved to pity, instead feeling wounded. But that week, feeling so flayed from the past weeks' experiences at the hands of those who were supposed to love and care for us, it was such a blow. That whoever left it didn't feel comfortable enough to come and simply ask, "What happened? What changed?", but instead hid behind an anonymous letter like we were in junior high. After a few hours' mulling over, the amount of fear behind that choice made me sad. It still does.

That day, we piled the kids in the car right after church and drove out to a favorite state park. We met friends there, had a picnic lunch, and then wandered the trail in the park, soaking in the peace, the wonder, the rich fullness of God's love so evident in creation. It was welcome salve to our souls, and the kids loved it.

And between those six weeks and that night at the keyboard, there had been so many more things . . . small things, but significant. A friend letting slip something that made it plain that she had been asked to not use me as a substitute pianist in Primary. Another friend calling me to give me a heads-up that someone else had been gossiping to her that I was agitating for women to hold the priesthood (scandalous in our church, even if it's not in others), and losing my testimony.  The first part, I laughed at. The second hurt me. Deeply. (I never did get the name of the gossiper from her. At this point, I think that's a good thing. But man, did I ever want to defend my good name then.)

And the list goes on . . . all beginning after I realized there wasn't a rule against me wearing something that kept me warm. It's like those simple slacks shook my leaders and some of my ward members so deeply that suddenly, I was the "item of concern" during leadership meetings. I went from trusted member to unknown quantity (with a strongly inferred negative sign in front). And besides those two very rough interviews in the above list, neither Vern nor I have been approached. We've been treated with a strange mix of "everything's fine" and "ten foot pole necessary" and "missionary project". And it has exposed all of the brokenness and human frailty that our ward labors under, and, to a great extent, the church at large.

But in exchange, we have learned . . . oh, how we've learned . . . that our God is a God of mercy. Of love. Of grace. Of healing. We have learned the gritty, vulnerable truth behind the word "forgiveness". And I've lost one of my testimonies, all right: my faith in men, in institutions, and in the "traditions of my fathers" that control the church on every hand. It's God's way or no way, now. His Word, His example, His Spirit, first, last and above all.

And on I played . . . all of the loss and separation washing over me with the music, through me with each word I softly sang, and finally ebbing out to something less than before as my God, the God of my Salvation, the God of Israel, came to sit and sorrow with me.

I dried my eyes, and returned to the youth practicing with their leaders, loss tucked deep into a corner of my heart, my game face back on . . .

. . . praying they didn't see my eyelashes still wet.

Update: due to private response to this post, I would like to add the following. 

My intent was not to call any single person out...simply to share what my overall experience has been. At a time in my life when I have needed understanding and support, I was met with very little of either. My hope wasn't to make any single person feel uncomfortable. It was to show what things have looked and felt like from where I and my family have walked.

I have worked with so, so many members and leaders in the church; none of whom have been perfect. I don't carry a chip on my shoulder, or have a vendetta to pursue. I have just struggled with the utterly unprecedented mistrust and outsider status our family has experienced over the last two years or so. What we have experienced here has been totally unlike any of the seven units we've attended. I wrote with the hope of helping to increase understanding, to help anyone who reads my experience to see the side of the story that has never been told--that has never been given an audience.

The fact that humans regularly make mistakes doesn't bind us to silence; rather it calls us to work towards greater understanding and love for one another so we can improve and grow beyond those mistakes. The near-total lack of healthy dialogue has encouraged an unhealthy social & spiritual climate.

I did my best to share just my experience, and not speak poorly of anyone else. I dearly hope I succeeded.