Cookie Dough Covenants

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

My daughter was nine months old when I ate raw cookie dough for the first time after being pregnant. It was delicious, crunchy, and melted right in my mouth. That night, I began to feel a tummy ache beginning. With a sinking stomach I remembered eating the cookie dough. My worry that I had caught some uncurable strain of Samonella grew as the hours passed, even though no symptoms of food poisoning ever began. In the middle of the night, sick with nothing but a crushing sense of worry, I said a quick prayer.

"Please God, don't let me die. My daughter is still so young and she needs me. If you save my life just this once, I promise to never eat raw cookie dough again for as long as I live."



Feeling that my bargain was satisfactory, I fell asleep. I didn't get sick. I faithfully kept my end of the bargain for years. One day, when telling this story to some friends, my friend Lauren asked me,

"Do you still eat over-easy eggs?"
"Yes," I said, confused.
She laughed. With a gentle smile she said, "Channing, that's really not any different than eating cookie dough. It is still, essentially, eating raw eggs."

I was horrified. I broke my promise without even knowing it! An immediate sense of guilt set in. For a few days I wrestled with the new understanding. I slowly came to a heartbreaking realization. My extreme and desperate cookie dough covenant perfectly illustrated what my understanding of God was, and what I saw was terrifying.

I imagined God to be observing me through some kind of "earth security system," waiting for me to fail not only at my Cookie Dough Covenant but the hundreds of promises I had made. When failure did come, I imagined God to come up with an elaborate scheme through which he would administer my punishment. It would be intricate and hit me always where it hurt most: death. Losing my husband. Losing my child. At the moment of punishment, he would sit on his high and white throne and let loose his swift and justified "godly anger" with a smile.

This story I had absorbed about the nature of God was so entwined with my lifetime of church education, my OCD, and my childhood trauma that it took me years

years

to eat cookie dough again.

My first post-fast spoonful wasn't revelatory. Honestly, its not really memorable at all, except for one brave act of defiance that went with it. As I tasted the raw dough, crunched the chocolate chips between my molars, and savored the texture of the sugar crystals, I turned my thoughts to God and said,

"I dare you.
Do your worst."

Then I waited. I watched for signs of epic Salmonella poisoning. When it didn't come, I waited more. For what I wasn't sure. A surprise car crash? Falling down my apartment stairs and dying? The apocalypse I was sure to burn in? I looked over my shoulder for months, fully expecting to find death and misfortune following me. None arrived. Eventually I relaxed into my rebellion and decided I had caught God on a good day and got off lucky.

It wasn't until a few years later that I was exposed to new language and understandings about God. Through many books and podcasts I listened to, I learned about two different images of the Divine - the Angry God and the Loving God. I recognized Angry God immediately. He was the God of my Cookie Dough Covenant. He was the God who was always watching me, waiting for me to fail. He was the one who made the rules and turned people to salt for not following them. This was the God who destroyed cities, struck people dumb, and sic'ed whales on proud prophets. Quite frankly, I felt like he was outta control and needed to reign it in a bit.

But I did not recognize Loving God right away. It took me time to understand what unconditional love meant. As hard as I tried, it was impossible for me to see Loving God as male. There was too much trauma for me there. Too many bishops shaming me. Too many men using their priesthood as privilege over me. No, I could not know Love as male.

I went in search of my Heavenly Mother. I found her in all the unexpected places. I learned to trust her, to see her flavor of love work inside and outside of my heart. I learned to recognize Love everywhere - in the trees, the earth, the birds, people, places, my own reflection. Only after resting in this love for a while could I bridge the gap between Mother and Father and bring them into a loving whole. Unconditional Love is the God who has my heart today.



My conversion to Love required me to examine every part of my spiritual beliefs. It still does. Being a faithful, active LDS member often brings me to a crossroads of the paths of the Loving and the Angry God. There are a lot of gospel and cultural practices that I question. This causes me great anxiety sometimes because hanging in the balance between eternal life and damnation is not a comfortable place to be. But if I'm completely honest, I do question the necessity and health of some of the "saving" ordinances of my faith. Baptism? The ritual itself is beautiful. The covenant to love God and serve others is about as good as things get where promises are concerned. But is it necessary? Necessary, defined as "needing to be done to be fully accepted by God and have greater access to blessings"? I'm just not sure. As I move down the checklist of ordinances, practices, and experiences I've been taught are expected and necessary, I become even less certain.

My experience with some of these ordinances and practices have been acutely painful. My endowment was one of the most layered traumatic experiences of my adult life. Wearing the sacred garment causes me to have, at best, heavy and condemning body image shame and at worst, intense and horrific PTSD flashback episodes. Considering these moments in my life, I have to question the validity of claims that these terrifying experiences are "life-saving", let alone life-giving. Surely, surely, a Loving God would not require these things of me. Surely Love exceeds expectation. That is my prayer, anyway.

When I think of Loving God, I think of looking out at the meeting of sky and sea from La Jolla Beach in San Diego, California. I can't pinpoint exactly where one ends and the other begins because they melt into each other in the middle. Waves roll in from this center and crash on the sand between my toes. "I am bigger than even that," the waves whisper. Love, Love. Peace, Peace. Beneath the surface of stillness is a swirling under toe of compassion and acceptance that begs to sweep away my fear.



Last week I took a moment to look deeply into my daughter's eyes as she gave me a hug and kiss goodnight. In them I saw glitters and speckles and various shades of green and brown. With all the love in my heart, I said to her, "You have the most beautiful green eyes. They remind me of mountain meadows, where the grass sways gently in the wind and smells sweet in the rain." She smiled at me and said, "I love you, mom." Later, I thought on that moment. It was totally spontaneous and it was made of the purest love I had in me.

There is not a thing in this world my girl could do that would make me not love her. I've considered as many scenarios as I could think of, checking my love against them to see if it would still hold. I can say with confidence that my love could withstand any of her life's choices. I think God's love is the same. It is a constant presence. Like my friend Rachel wrote recently, "love is what fills my children's snack bags." It does not wait until we do something good to arrive and it doesn't leave when we make a mistake. It fills the snack bags every day, every day, every day.

I guess the question that's really been on my mind is this:

Is my God a God of love?

The Radical Love of Christ

This post was originally given as a Sacrament Meeting talk in early 2019. I'm sharing it here because 1. I'm very proud of it, and 2. almost a year after writing it, I'm still inspired by it.

Yes, its true. 
I'm big enough to admit that I'm often inspired by myself. #leslieknope

Now that you've heard my terrible opening joke, on to the real post! Enjoy.
...

In his October 2018 General Conference address, David A. Bednar teaches “The gospel of Jesus Christ provides the greatest perspective of truth and offers the richest blessings as we heed the admonition of Paul to ‘gather together in one all things in Christ’.”

When I think of Jesus Christ, many words pop into my mind.

love
service
forgiveness
example

But what I would like to share with you today is how my understanding and implementation of Paul’s admonition to “gather together all things into Christ” is shaped by the Savior’s example of radical love.

What makes the love of Christ so radical? I believe it is because of its unflinching availability to all.

If we look to the scriptures, we will find countless examples to explore.
Who did Jesus exclude from his love and forgiveness?

Not a blind man,
not an “unclean” woman with an issue of blood.
not a Samaritan woman at a well,
not a tax collector,
nor the fishermen who became some of his closest friends.
Not a woman with a thousand devils,
not even
the gentile woman 
begging for blessing-crumbs for her daughter.
Not the Savior’s sleeping companions
nor the Roman soldier with a missing ear come to take Him away.
Not even the fearful denials of a friend.

Christ commands us to both abide in and invite all into the experience of his love and forgiveness because he knows a fundamental truth of the origin of man. The countenance of the Divine is in every one of us. Author C.S. Lewis wrote, 

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship… There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”



In essence, if we want to see the face of God, we need look no further than across our neighborhood streets, no further than the walls of this room. Indeed, look no further than even the faces sitting next to us now. We honor our shared divinity by first honoring it in ourselves. We do this by claiming the radical love of the Savior and the forgiveness from his atonement. We then honor it in others by proclaiming this good news to everyone we meet, much like the woman caught in adultery. For are we all not caught and accused in some way, at one time or another? That is what it means to be mortal. Let us then offer, time and time again, a drawing in the sand and a blessing on all we meet.

Conversion


When I speak of “gathering all things one into Christ”, of course I am talking about conversion. But conversion to what?

Jean A. Stevens, a prior first counselor in the Primary General Presidency, teaches “The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a checklist of things to do, rather, it lives in our hearts.”

We become converted not to “read our scriptures, pray, come to church, eat the bread, drink the water.” These communions are important, surely, but not because we do them. Conversion is about why. We are not converted to “get baptized, be confirmed, receive the endowment, and be sealed.” Again, these ceremonies and the covenants we partake in are important, but it is not because we do them. It is about why. These practices are empty offerings without our hearts, our mind, might, and soul. They are empty without conversion. Not conversion to the events in the Sacred Grove, not to the Plan of Salvation or “forever families.”



Conversion must be to the source these beautiful practices and beliefs originate from - 

the radical, ceaseless, unconditional love of our Heavenly Parents and their son Jesus Christ, who is one in purpose with them

Or else our checklists,
our social media fasts,
our Book of Mormon challenges
are for naught.

Or, as Elder Bednar says, “Only as we gather together all things one into Christ, with firm focus upon Him, can gospel truths... enable us to become what God desires us to become… Our only objectives are to facilitate continuing conversion to the Lord and to love more completely and serve more effectively our brothers and sisters.”

Unity


Last year, the Relief Society in my Phoenix ward held a discussion about unity. When asked what unity meant to them, one woman answered, “togetherness”.

When the discussion went deeper, our facilitator asked, “How do we develop unity with our ward and our community?”

One woman answered, “We practice unity each time we take the sacrament.”

She continued, saying that the sacrament is a unifying covenant in two ways. It unifies us with the Savior, binding us to him both with our re-birth into the fold bearing his name and with our promise to bear witness of him always. Secondly, it unifies us with our community because it reminds us every week of the promises we made at baptism to mourn with and comfort one another.

Every week we participate in renewing those promises, both to God and to each other.

Ministry


What does it mean to mourn? 

Using the story of God weeping in the story of Enoch, Terryl and Fiona Givens, religion professors and co-authors of the book “The God Who Weeps”, perfectly illustrate what godly mourning looks like.

“Enoch asks God... “how is it that thou canst weep?” The answer, it turns out is that God is not exempt from emotional pain… He weeps because He feels compassion. It is not wickedness… but “misery”, not disobedience, but “suffering” that elicits the God of Heaven’s tears… There could be nothing... more perfectly good, absolutely beautiful, worthy of adoration, and deserving of emulation than this God of love and kindness and vulnerability.”

Let us not become blind or numb to the pain and suffering of the mortal condition. Let us instead allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to be broken open and therefore become a conduit of divine love.



What does it mean to comfort?

Comfort is ministry. That is the example Christ gives to us, and I am happy to see an increased focus on ministering both in our wards and our non-member communities.

Colossians 3: 12 & 14 provides guidance for the kind of ministering we are called to do. I read it and was struck by the tone of the verses, which strongly reminded me of the wording of scriptures about the armor of God. How would our approach to ministering change if we were to dress ourselves as outlined? “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.”
Again, those articles of ministry, if you will, are:
bowels of mercies - not just a singular mercy, but many -
kindness, 
humbleness of mind, 
meekness
longsuffering
and above all else
charity, which is
the pure, radical love of Christ.

Unless we are willing 
to succor and serve, 
to comfort and rejoice with, and
without condition, 
feed every hungry soul that comes to the table, 

we are proverbial tares,
not wheat.



Each week the sacrament unites us in the body of Christ. It should also prick our conscience. Each time we partake, we invite self examination, asking ourselves, 

“Am I fulfilling my first estate?”

I’m gonna be honest with you guys, like 80% of the time, I’m really not doing a great job. ‘Cause people are scary, ya know? And I’m just a little woman staying at home raising her two young kids, no college degree, no fancy letters before or after her name. Just your everyday lady, with a buncha books and houseplants, an OCD diagnosis, and a big heart.

A nobody.

But God begs to differ, so I put on my snow boots and put my big heart on my sleeve and I go out into this big scary world and do exactly what the second sister in my old Relief Society advised:

Have love and appreciation for our shared sameness.

When we practice opening our eyes and hearts to those around us, we begin to see all we share with those who seem very different to us. When we put aside our judgements, our fears, and our prejudices, we quickly see we are all woven with and by Love itself.

This practice equips us with a great and necessary spiritual gift: meekness, which Elder Bednar defines in separate talk as: “spiritual receptivity to learning from both the Holy Ghost and from people who may seem less capable, experienced, or educated, who may not hold important positions, or who otherwise appear not to have much to contribute.” Blessed are they that obtain it, for they shall inherit the earth.

Again, those articles of ministry I spoke of earlier:
bowels of mercies
kindness, 
humbleness of mind, 
meekness
longsuffering
and above all else
charity

remind us

the only people excluded from the radical love of Christ
were those who excluded themselves 
on matters of pride with stony hearts

and even still

his arms are open to them

like they are open to all of us

because we are one flock
with one shepherd

all things gathered into Christ.

Watching Winter Sparrows: Anger as a Necessary Teacher

Friday, November 1, 2019

 This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture, 
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
The Guest House - rumi
My family moved into our first ever house in January. After living in Phoenix for five years, I was completely unprepared for certain aspects of a northern Utah winter. My physical needs for warmth and comfort were met perfectly. What I wasn't prepared for was the quietness of the earth; and with that quietness, a great loneliness.
In January, the Great Basin Desert is asleep under a blanket of snow. Its impossible to identify dead plants. The first half of my first year in Utah was lonely for a very subtle reason: I was unable to orient myself. I was surprised at how difficult it was for me to feel like I was home without knowing the plants around me.
 
My tie to the earth in this time came in the smallest form. There is a small family of house sparrows that lives in the tangle of vines along the north side of our property. I can see them clearly from my kitchen and dining room windows. They are an active and joyful little bunch, constantly flittering from branch to branch gathering food and staying warm by nestling in my honeysuckle vine. They have a distinct chirp chatter that kept me company during the day, and I learned to orient time by their songs. I became quite attached to these birds, going out in the cold to shoo away the magpies that harassed them.
As the weather warmed and the trees and vines began to blossom, I saw less and less of the sparrows. One late spring afternoon I remembered to listen for the sparrow's songs. I sat quiet and ready to hear their chicory chirp, chicory chirp
but the air remained quiet. I realized then I had not heard the sparrow song for quiet some time. I was devastated. They had moved on, moved away.
 
You abandoned me.
I said this 
first to the sparrows,
then to the Earth,
and finally, to God.

I was angry to be left alone in a foreign land.
My hand that had been open all winter
to offer seed to the sparrows
closed into a tight fist.

I became an angry person,
which is strange because
I am afraid of anger.

It has a volatile nature, like fire,
with a tendency to spark and send ashes miles away
to light ghost fires that become their own problems.
But that is not why I am afraid.

Anger, in its truest and most holy form
is a catalyst for change.

Holy anger is a teacher. When anger shows up in our body, we do not need to be afraid. Instead, we need to listen. The heat, the licking flames have a message. 
Ask
What boundaries have been crossed?
What needs have been neglected?
What sacred trust has been lost or broken?
 
Anger always has an answer. And like a real fire, it would be incredibly irresponsible to just let anger continue to burn hot and uncontrolled. Say a fire you were burning in a pit in your backyard grew bigger than expected and became out of control. Would you sit back in a folding lawn chair wait for someone to bring a bucket of water or a hose? Would you just wait for your neighbors to call 911? I hope you'd take initiative and grab a hose and call the fire department. 
Anger is the same. It is your holy anger. It is your teacher, no one else's. You must care for it. You are its keeper. Holy anger is a gift. Who cares who gives it to you! It arrives to your doorstep as a guest. With wise and careful treatment it will warm your hearth. If you ignore it and stuff it away in a forgotten room, it will burn your house down. Trust me - I've tried it.
When your needs have been neglected, it is a blessed kind of love to honor and meet them yourself. When your boundaries have been crossed, it is a kindness to yourself to create, communicate, and enforce them. When sacred trust has been broken, you have the power to adapt the relationship appropriately. While you wait for someone to take responsibility, to fix what they have broken, to apologize, your fire still burns. Holy anger waits for no one. Justice must be wise and swift. Anything else is not mercy.
 
When we embrace our anger as a necessary teacher, we understand the importance of sitting with it instead of brushing it aside. In a "good vibes only" culture, we often forget that intense emotions can be a valuable asset to growth and understanding. Fire and anger are scary, yet I was shocked to learn a few years ago that deciduous forests that burn to the ground once in a while are actually healthier than those that don't. Some tree seeds need heat from a fire to catalyze their germination. Nutrients from ash are absorbed into the soil and boost the health of the earth in burned areas. Naturally occurring fire is a normal and necessary part of the cycle of growth and death. In the same way, anger serves as "dead end" sign that is impossible to ignore. It says: This continues no further. Sometimes that means we leave relationships, careers, and religions behind. More often than not, what must be let go of is our own pride, our ego.

The stretching open of a fist is a letting go,
a surrender to the teacher.

The softening says,
I am here.
I am listening.
I will do what is required.

It is the humble mastery of the self.
This is its own tender mercy - 
to see our human experiences as lessons 
rather than defects in character.

It is strange to me that as I lean in to my holy anger, small miracles occur. Saying sorry is easier. My heavy reliance and expectations on others diminish. There is a lot of weeping, which is a blessing when feeling anything felt like a dream just months ago.
And the sparrows have returned to their winter abode
in the tangled brush in my backyard.

chicory chirp they greet me
as if they haven't been gone for half the year.
But all is forgiven
at the sound of their song.

Instagram Goodness

© Channing B. Parker. Design by FCD.