The Difference Between Fortune Telling and Patriarchal Blessings: a Lesson Learned from Janet Russon

I recently got into a discussion about the meaningful differences between fortune telling and patriarchal blessings with someone who wanted me to elaborate on that distinction. Since character limits were becoming a hindrance to achieving understanding, and because this is a comparison I've seen many Latter-day Saints making, I wanted to take advantage of this perfect opportunity with an LDS psychic whose name is becoming synonymous with Timothy Ballard and Operation Underground Railroad.

It's a comparison we can make on two fronts: patriarchal blessings to fortune telling, and patriarchs to fortune tellers.

Let's begin by acknowledging that there are many types of fortune telling and I can't possibly speak to them all. So for this discussion, I'm going to limit this discussion to what we know of Janet Russon, a medium who claims to consult with the dead (specifically, a Book of Mormon prophet named Nephi) to obtain information about missing persons.


Janet Russon's bio from an organization called Rod's Heroes

In her position with OUR, she was as the sole informant. Her information was purely supernatural in nature, with no supplement of criminal investigation, forensics, or reviewable evidence of any kind. According to the reporting from Vice, Janet Russon was also paid substantial amounts of money for her services to OUR. She received about $1500 a reading, with compensation that totaled over $100,000 a year. She was paid regardless of whether her information led to the recovery of any children. She provided affirmative statements on whether their subjects were living, where they were being kept, and gave those readings to expecting parents who were hopeful that she could provide an actual reunion with their children. And as part of the criminal investigation into Tim Ballard, including his reported sexual exploitation of the women who worked with him, documents have also revealed that the numbers representing their successful rescues of children have been largely fabricated.

To date, Janet Russon has declined to comment on the investigations and has made no statement to the press. In the event that these details change and more information comes to light, I wanted to be clear of the working knowledge I'm currently working from as the means for this comparison.

It's also significant that I've studied patriarchal blessings extensively for a book I've been preparing for publication for almost a decade now for Latter-day Saints that includes a comprehensive historical look at patriarchal blessings and the roles they've plaid in the lives of our people in a wide variety of contexts. I've consulted published patriarchal blessings in large numbers, as well as conducting interviews with current and former members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about their lived experiences receiving and using their patriarchal blessings.I've also studied at length the relationship between the institutional church, its patriarchs, and patriarchal blessings as a form of church administration, the policies surrounding them, and the curriculum which has provided instruction on patriarchal blessings throughout the Church's existence. It's from much of that research that I'll be speaking today.

Let's get into it.

What do people mean when they say "fortune telling" in relation to a patriarchal blessing?

In my experience asking people to elaborate on this comparison, it almost exclusively refers to a patriarchal blessings' capacity, and the patriarch by extension, to accurately predict the future through the content of the blessings they give. When a patriarch doesn't provide specific details into a person's future endeavors and experiences--such as occupations, the character of spouse, the number of children, or some other material measurement by which the blessing's accuracy can be objectively measured--their blessings instead are called "vague" and "general."

Members who adhere to this comparison of patriarchal blessings expect a detailed outline in their of the good fortunes that will come to them in the future, in varying degrees of exacting detail. And if the description of that future doesn't match enough to the person's present vision of the good fortune they think they would most want and deserve, then those blessings get called "inaccurate." It's a label that can be (and has been) affixed to patriarchal blessings which have had no time or opportunity to come to fruition because the preferences of the person, not the possibility of change and growth, are the basis for the assertion.

Why is this significant? Because if a patriarchal blessing's purpose is to accurately predict the future, independent of the choices a person has and has not made, it provides an assurance of prosperity independent from the choices a person makes. A fortune either comes true, objectively as written, or it doesn't. Fortunes, by definition, are succeed or fail, rich or poor, favored or disfavored, whether through arbitrary luck or divine will. There is no room for variable or conditional outcomes when you're talking about fortune.

Janet Russon vs. Patriarchs

The fortune telling of Janet Russon typifies this description because in working with OUR, she said she could find missing children. She claimed to know whether they were dead or alive. She claimed to be able to see where they were being kept, and the capacity to know how to lead OUR operatives to them. These are categorical statements that are either true or false. She either possesses the exact knowledge she claims to have in that moment or she doesn't. And she offered to exchange this knowledge, and the outcome of finding these children and reuniting them with their families, in exchange for payment. OUR took donations from the public based her ability to reunite missing kids with their families. This was the service Tim Ballard and Janet Russon were offering to their donors: not that she would TRY to reunite kids with their families, but that they would succeed. And her success rate, which they manufactured, was given as a factual statement with the intent to deceive and defraud those donors.

The role Janet Russon was playing in this situation is more similar to Elizabeth Holmes than a patriarch. The effort to obtain money from investors independent of any guarantee of success, especially when that money is obtained through fraudulent statements, is in no way similar to a patriarchal blessing. And to be generous, it's not even fortune telling. It's a crime to take money from investors based purely on wishful thinking that you'll be able to provide what you promised them. That is the entire crux of the case against Elizabeth Holmes when she was convicted of fraud in the Theranos case. It didn't matter that she genuinely believed she could eventually deliver a product to market that was capable of delivering on all the promises she made. Her sincere belief did not excuse her from criminal liability.

No patriarch can ignore the bounds the Lord has set on his abilities and still serve with the power of the priesthood. They can't fraudulently misrepresent themselves, their capabilities, or their intentions. They can't provide patriarchal blessings in exchange for financial gain, for praise, or to magnify their influence over others. The point of the patriarchal blessing is not to highlight any particular knowledge, eloquence, or power in the patriarch. The only way for them to succeed in their callings at all is to remove themselves and their influence from the blessings they give as much as possible, making room for God to manifest instead. Their motivations can only be to serve God, to be a true and faithful conduit for what God wishes to communicate.

Patriarchs don't claim to have categorical, absolute information about anyone's future. Predicting and outlining a person's future successes and failures is not the purpose of a patriarchal blessing. It's not what the Church instructs them to do. Such instruction runs contrary to the guidance that patriarchs now receive and have received in the past on giving patriarchal blessings. 

Every patriarch I've spoken to, received insight from through their writings, or heard echoes of in the accounts and testimonies of others, tries to teach correct principles through the blessings they give and allow members to govern themselves. Rather than providing a strict set of directions for a person to follow exactly, a patriarch provides inspiration for the person to incorporate into the life they create for themselves. They illuminate possibilities that a person is free to accept, reject, or reshape in any way that suits them. 

Like an artist using a model to create a work of art, the choice remains with the artist on how they incorporate the model into their artwork. So to does a member of the church decide how a patriarchal blessing influences the life they ultimately create.

What are patriarchal blessings, if not fortune telling?

The theological framework of patriarchal blessings is to guide a person in their spiritual life back to the presence of their Heavenly Parents. It exists to point people to Jesus Christ every time they read it over a lifetime, in any number of circumstances where they could find themselves. It is a spiritual tool that is meant to be a comfort in times of hardship. It provides emotional and spiritual support during difficult decisions. While it may or may not provide direct answers in material decisions regarding employment, marriage, family planning, church service, or a variety of other temporal questions, there is no requirement for it to do so. It may or may not provide a reminder of a true principle by which a person can generally guide their actions. But the choice itself and the consequences remain with the person. There is no fixed, fated outcome that a person either succeeds or fails in obtaining. They control, through their own choices, how similar their lives are to the patriarchal blessing they received. At the heart of the theological framework of patriarchal blessings is the divinely appointed agency that God has given to all his children.

The importance of agency is apparent throughout the entire process of obtaining and using a patriarchal blessing. For a patriarch to perform a patriarchal blessing, they require consent from the person for whom they’re providing a blessing. Members indicate their consent for the patriarch to serve in their stake during the sustaining vote in stake conference. A key feature of the recommend interview process also formally documents the request of the member for a patriarchal blessing in writing, thereby providing a record of when they gave consent for the patriarch to seek revelation on the person’s behalf. Mormonism has an exacting structure with regards to stewardship, of who can serve in what roles and perform what functions for whom, either based on assignment from a leadership position or by familial relationship. This structure exists, at least in part, to prevent the misuse and abuse of divine power. No patriarch, by virtue of their office, can provide a patriarchal blessing where it hasn’t been requested and authorized. Where formalized consent has not been given by the individual receiving the blessing, no patriarchal blessing can be performed. The methodology behind how patriarchs give these blessings respects, first and foremost, the agency of the person receiving the blessing.

No patriarch can provide a patriarchal blessing in exchange for money, for praise, or to magnify his own influence over others. No patriarch can ignore the bounds the Lord has set on his abilities and still serve with the power of the priesthood. No patriarch can fraudulently present themselves or their capabilities and have the blessings from God to give a patriarchal blessing. And I’d daresay that any patriarch presenting themselves as the source of  knowledge or blessings they give would find themselves similarly cut off from any divine influence. The point of the patriarchal blessing is not to highlight any particular knowledge, eloquence, or power in the patriarch. Rather, it’s to remove themselves from the situation as much as possible. Their motivations can only be to serve God, to be a true and faithful vehicle for that which is holy to shine through.

The interpretive process for a patriarchal blessing belongs entirely to that individual. Patriarchs have no role, formal or informal, in prescribing meaning to any part of a patriarchal blessing. Church leadership and parents are also instructed not to provide any kind of interpretation for patriarchal blessings. How a person reads, interprets, translates, studies, or in any way uses their patriarchal blessing is a personal decision. The extent to which any of it is prophetic is theirs to determine, without the input of anyone else. Because only that person can receive revelation as part of their personal stewardship over themselves, no one else would ever be given revelation over someone else’s patriarchal blessing. The only instruction that is universally given afterwards is for individuals to limit with whom they share their patriarchal blessing, exactly to preserve the integrity of this personal right to interpretation. The act of discovering meaning in a patriarchal blessing is a personal act of worship, shared only between God and that individual.

Fortune tellers work for themselves. What they provide is an experience that exists solely for the purpose of making money. Patriarchs work for the Lord. What they provide is an experience that exists solely to enhance the worship of God in the lives of Church members. It's a difference that matters, but for many people exists only in the hypothetical. It's only in the practical, the rare opportunity for an actual comparison that the difference can truly be illustrated in the most stark terms. That's what Janet Russon, at least in part, represents to Latter-day Saints in this moment.

How long has the Church been trying to get Latter-day Saints to stop calling patriarchal blessings "fortune telling"?


What if the silence after prayer isn't proof of God's absence, but instead evidence of God's awe?

What if it's just the silence preceding a slow clap?

What if I'm the character in the series God has been reading for years, and I'm finally going to Do the Thing? The Thing God has been waiting for me to do since page one. And unbeknownst to me, I've just done it.

So I'm not alone in hardship. God just had to put the book down to cry a little bit. My Creator had to go back and reread it a few more times, just to savor the fact that it's real, that I am real, and all of this is really happening.

What if God always knew I would trample this hardship under my feet, but is too giddy with anticipation to see me succeed to interrupt?

The F Word

I'm an elder millennial and I've been in LDS/Mormon online spaces since I was a teenager. Since 2007. Sixteen years. That's almost as long as some of you have been alive. And there's something I've never talked about before that I want to explain to those of you who need to hear it. And you need to stick around for THE WHOLE THING not to misunderstand what I'm going to say.

The vast majority of you end up okay. You'll make it. You'll figure out your happiness and embrace it fully, and it'll all work out. You'll be okay. I care about you all tremendously, but I've seen your stories play out enough times that I know how it ends. If we can keep you from yeeting off the mortal coil prematurely, you'll be just fine.

There is one group this isn't true for. They're the ones I worry about the most every time I see them: the trad wife cohort. The women who have already decided that their only plan for their future is to get married, have an undetermined number of children, and leave everything after that as a giant question mark, to be decided for them by other people's choices.

I'm the only LDS person in my family. I come from a family with three generations of divorced/separated women. To be financially independent enough to take care of myself was instilled in me from birth. Protect yourself and your financial freedom from abusive men, from men who do not have your best interest anywhere near their thoughts.

That's what I learned from watching my mother work herself to the bone to pay for my father's attorney from the constant legal trouble that alcoholism, drugs, and nonsense behavior from untreated mental illness brought upon us. There were times we didn't have food, but there was always a case of beer in the refrigerator. That's what I learned from my grandmother, who divorced her husband at a time when that was unheard of because he abused her. That was what I learned from not one, but two great-grandmothers who, as southern women with all of the cultural baggage it entailed, left their husbands and lived on their own rather than putting up with disrespectful behavior from the men they married. Women who believed that it is better to be alone than with any man who doesn't respect you.

This is my backstory, my lore, if you will. And I swore I would honor it by never putting myself anywhere near situations that looked like these. To be financially dependent on any man, no matter how kind and generous, was something I never wanted for myself. I wanted my own job, my own money, the ability to travel, to do as I pleased. I wanted financial freedom, the security of knowing I would always be able to take care of myself AND him AND our children if it ever came down to that.

That's not the life I have. In all but name only, I'm a trad wife. Chronic illness and disabilities have made it so I cannot work. I am fully financially dependent on my husband, and every effort I have made to change my situation has come at great financial expense, as well as compromising my physical and mental health. I've had to let go of the life I wanted for myself because I've never found any employer who was willing to give me the accommodations I need to accomplish even a fraction of my goals. And even if they did, it's impossible for me to work enough hours for me to ever achieve them.

I'm a trad wife, not by choice, but out of necessity. And it scares me every day.

If my husband dies in an accident, or a mass shooting? If he becomes disabled? If he ever becomes as sick as I am, or worse? What will we do? We have plans for this. We have multiple retirement accounts, including one in my own name, that he puts money into. He sees my situation, understands it, and prioritizes it in how he manages our finances. But if it were to happen today, tomorrow, any time before we both can retire, we're screwed. Shit Creek, no paddle.

If he leaves me? If I ever have to leave him? How will I support myself? Honestly, I don't know. I don't have an answer to that question. It scares me more than I can articulate. I hope I never have to find out because I'm too disabled to take care of myself. That's the only thing I know.

There are too many women who are far too eager to put themselves into this place of financial insecurity and precarity. They don't even realize how dangerous that path is, for them and for their children, to have nothing that truly belongs to you. Not really. Not if the money that paid for it wasn't yours. Not when everything you treasure and recognize as the life you want has his name on it.

Being a trad wife is built on an agreement of mutual exploitation. In exchange for providing unpaid, undocumented labor, your spouse has agreed to pay all of your expenses indefinitely into the future. If this were a job, you would never agree to those terms. Trad wives don't understand that when it comes to marriage, however, they're jumping into that exact situation head first.

All of this to say: I'm not morally or ideologically opposed to anyone being a house wife or SAHM. I understand EXACTLY what happens to women to make that a necessity. I don't judge anyone who ends up in that position, either by choice or by force. But I'm not going to let anyone go into or remain in that situation blindly, having never once thought about how to finance the life they're dreaming about. I'm not going to let anyone walk through life somehow thinking that everything is supposed to magically work out for them like some sort of fairy tale. That's not how the world works. That not how life works. And I hate the thought that the first time all of this occurs to someone is when their life comes crashing down around them.

If "feminism" is the dirtiest word you know, you're not in any kind of position to advocate for yourself. If you don't see yourself as your husband's equal (which is what feminism, by definition, HAS to mean), how could you even begin to negotiate for yourself in a divorce, a job interview after being out of the workplace for 10+ years, or to family who you'll be reliant upon to get you back on your feet? If you don't even have the courage to say you deserve to be treated like an equal in society when everything is going to plan, how would you do it from the floor with the wind knocked out of you?

I'm not here to argue about the superiority of trad wives OR working wives. I'm not here to fight for anything but Universal Basic Income so we can all exist in a more secure financial state, independent of individual circumstances. And I'm definitely not here to scare you.

I'm simply here as the person you will inevitably be turning to in that moment of crisis, where faith and devotion fall short of giving you everything you wanted in life. I'll be the one with the bottle of water and saying "You are brilliant and strong. You can figure this out." I'll also be the one nodding in agreement that your husband took for granted all the love and labor you gave to him, purely because he was socialized to think he has a right to do that to you. No, I don't think you're crazy. No, I don't think you're asking too much. YES, YOU NEED A LAWYER FOR YOUR CHILD SUPPORT CASE. I'll be there for all of it, to say all of the things to you that you can't imagine ever needing when you say "all I want is to be a trad wife."

How do I know? Because I've been doing it for sixteen years now with people who sounded just like you do now. In person and online. In public and in private. With friends and strangers. I've never had the luxury of being anything but a feminist, an advocate for women they don't even realize they need, that they don't (and won't!) have the vocabulary to ask for.

Not as long as "feminism" is the dirtiest word they know.

Reconciliation: the Rejection of Penal Substitutionary Atonement in The Book of Mormon

"So you're telling me that Jesus Christ is there to save you from what God is going to do to you if you don't repent?"

I've encountered this worldview many times throughout my life. Sometimes from those of other faiths outside of Christianity who don't understand the purpose of the atonement or the need for a Savior. Other times, it's from atheists or disaffected members who give it as a justification for their non-belief. The Book of Mormon contradicts penal substitutionary atonement and its underpinnings in some pretty significant ways, so I wanted to lay those out. The portions that went into this particular take down are in 2 Nephi 2 and 9, as well as Alma 12 and 34.

In this worldview, divine law and sin exist solely as the mechanisms for being punished and rejected by God. The atonement of Jesus Christ, as a result, saves people not from sin or Satan, but from a God who is tallying our wrongs to exact a punishment. The only thing stopping this God is the mercy of Christ, who nullifies the consequences of our actions through his own torment and suffering. We learn nothing, Christ suffers, and a violent God is appeased by watching an innocent man die.

Let's unpack all of this so we can throw it away because it's inaccurate theology that misunderstands and taints pretty much everything it touches.

Divine law does not exist to catch us in wrong doing, to provide the rules by which God can punish us without restraint. That's a projection onto God from the experience of dealing with horrible people. They may do this to us, but God does not.

A great way to prove this is to look at what sin actually is. Something doesn't become sinful "just because God said so." Sin, by definition, is anything that causes "temporal death" or "spiritual death." If it doesn't cause physical harm or distance us from God, it's not a sin. This is actually a really good standard for discerning and judging whether something that is being called sinful comes from God or not.

Murder? Physical harm. Sin.

Idolatry? Spiritual harm. Sin.

Refusing to ever identify myself as a Mormon or LDS again, even though they're accurate labels for myself, because of concerns and scruples I don't care about, and for a spiritual benefit that is dubious at best?

Am I saying that prophets and members of the Church have so polluted the notion of sin with their own prejudices and biases that what makes something sinful has completely gotten lost in a sea of crap that was never sinful at all?

Yes. Yes, I am.

Why is this important for answering the question of whether we have a vengeful God and a pushover Christ?

Because it means that the laws and standards by which we're trying to judge the motivations of God have been polluted by human nonsense. It means that the transactional relationship where God and Christ fight over us using fine print and technicalities is as broken as it sounds, and we're not bound by anything that relies upon that as a justification because it just isn't true. It means that if this dysfunctional relationship is what you were taught by family, church leaders, and other members of the Church, you've been taught blasphemy that doesn't even come close to being accurate.

It's impossible to repent of something that isn't sinful. That's why no matter how much you do it, it will never bring peace.

So if transactional atonement is the vestigial anxieties of Calvinism being passed along through generational trauma and it belongs in the dumpster, how should we view the atonement of Jesus Christ instead? What are God's motivations towards us if not to cause misery through setting impossible standards we'll never be able to meet?

God sent us here, in a variety of circumstances, to learn one lesson: to obtain knowledge of good and evil. More specifically, we're here to learn good from evil, and to consistently choose that which is good. We're here to have free will, to use and exercise agency. God gave us the ability to make our own choices, to know ourselves and to seek our own joy.

That's it. That's the plan.

Why is Jesus Christ necessary for God's plan? Because giving self-determination to the entire human family inevitably leads to suffering that we cannot overcome or undo the damage from on our own. We need someone to teach us how to be reconciled to God and to each other.

To put it simply, we have a Savior because we need him. We need him to teach us how to choose between good and evil in a way that no other person can. We need someone who can teach us to right wrongs, to heal wounds, to break generational curses in ways only he could do. He's not an enabler or a pushover. He is the one we depend on to teach us reconciliation. This isn't making that which is wrong or evil magically disappear. It's to resolve conflict and to be fully received again in love.

God is love. Love permeates everything God does. If love is absent, or needs to be redefined or contorted into something that neither looks nor feels like love, then it's not love. And if it's not love, then it's not from God.

Jesus Christ is the embodiment and evidence of God's love for us. That's it. There is no other reason or motivation for us to have a Savior. He doesn't just deliver us from sin. He delivers us to a greater capacity to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. He brings peace to us, the spirit of reconciliation, to everything we do.

Nothing Justifies the Racism of Brigham Young

I saw someone on Threads today posing a question about Brigham Young that upturned a trashcan in my head. Since I have frequent run-ins with folks on the racism of Brigham Young, I figure it was worth preserving here for future reference.

Question: What do you think motivated Brigham young's divergent choices on altering teachings regarding blacks and upholding polygamy? How do these decisions reflect the delicate balance between maintaining distinctiveness and fitting in with mainstream society?

I take issue with the question on a couple of fronts, not the least of which is the way people in LDS circles turn "blacks" into a noun, which makes my skin crawl every time I hear it. But also because it presupposes that the way Brigham Young viewed segregation and polygamy in the Church were fundamentally different from one another. They weren't. It also presupposes that social pressure was a significant factor in shaping Brigham Young's personal beliefs in relation to race. It wasn't.

Brigham Young was genuinely racist. The changes he made to race relations within the Church don't reflect the attitudes of others that were imposed upon him. They were his. He didn't cater to the institution of slavery out of convenience, for the sake of keeping the peace with Southern slavers who came to Utah. This is what the "State's rights" argument in Utah looks like, and it's a form of historical revisionism to which we can't give any degree of credibility or moral licensing.

Joseph Smith, for all his faults, didn't share in those prejudices against Black people. He advocated for an end to slavery. He prophesied of the Civil War and the day when "slaves shall rise up against their masters," that slavery would bring about war that would envelope the entire earth, and that the blood of the Saints, including those who were formerly enslaved, would cry out to God and "be avenged of their enemies." (See D&C 87:4-7) Joseph Smith provided ordinances of the Church and ordination in the priesthood to black men. The most accurate way to explain the deviations from this vision is that Brigham Young did not share in it in any way. He failed to continue in the trajectory of Joseph Smith because he didn't want to or have to do so.

Young's descendants try to say he wasn't racist, that he was trying to "save" the Church. I've seen black historians take on "State's rights" apologists simply by contextualizing the argument in the form of a question: the State's rights to do what? Answer: to engage in slavery. Invoking that same logic, I challenge apologists for Brigham Young who state his support of segregation was to "save the Church." To save the Church from what? Answer: from black people and interracial marriage. That was Brigham Young's answer. The idea that black people and their presence in the Church posed a significant enough threat that Church leadership were justified in responding with segregationist policies? Ludicrous. The effort to maintain that Brigham Young's segregationist policies were motivated by something other than sincerely-held racist beliefs? Abhorrent.

Brigham Young supported white supremacy, and slavery by extension, because he believed they were divine institutions. And since he believed polygamy was also a divine institution, that is the common thread shared between them.

Any sacrifice can and must be made for what the prophet has decided, through the filter of his own beliefs, is a divine institution. And and all consequences, social or political, must be accepted in the observance and protection of those institutions. There's no conflict here in Brigham Young's mind. He's treating racism and polygamy exactly the same way: as a sincere believer who is unapologetic about his participation in what he believes are acts of God. To be ashamed of them, to him, is to be ashamed of God. To yield to any kind of pressure to abandon them is to fear man more than God.

Enslaving human beings didn't save the Church from anything. This is a myth that has no place among our people. Everyone likes to speculate about the hypothetical harm that might have been done had the racial restriction never existed. No one wants to own the actual harm that existed to real people because of that restriction. The former is imagined and without substance. The latter is real and has real human lives and pain attached to it.

And I say this as someone who would've been caught in the net of the Church's racial restriction that was developed as an extension of Brigham Young's racism: I don't give a flying fig why he was racist. I care about the impact his racism had/has upon the Church.

By the standards of Brigham Young, which shaped the priesthood restriction as it came to be enforced, mine was an interracial marriage that should've never taken place. I deserved no temple blessings. I could exist among the Saints and look forward to, at best, an eternity of servitude. Every good thing I now recognize as an act of God in my life, the long list of divine blessings that make up and contribute to my personal faith, would never have been extended to me if it had been up to Brigham Young. To understand his motivations, you have to approach him from the perspective of the ones he rejected: a human being of flesh and blood, fully endowed with intelligence and feeling as real as any white person's, but at the same time (in his mind) not fully human. Brigham Young didn't see me, or black and mixed race people like me, as possessing any kind of humanity to which he owed any degree of dignity or respect.

That is his legacy. Those are the fruits by which I know him.

What can explain that?


What justifies it?


The Story of Prophetic Fallibility in Acts 15 Everyone Skips

There are many different ways to read and study scripture. There's the daily devotional style the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has recently adopted from the rest of Christianity. There's the various reading challenges that have been established and invoked, particularly relating to the Book of Mormon. There are topical studies, which focuses the study on a theme or subject of personal importance to the reader. I've always favored topical studies over consecutive study in my personal worship. It's what makes the use of scripture to me feel personal, rather than scholarly or historical.

The weakness of that approach is that I can go decades in the Church without encountering a story that doesn't get emphasized in Church curriculum or in my personal study. I just encountered such a story in Acts 15.

Past and present church materials focus on the Jerusalem conference, in which the church leadership had to settle arguments and contentions that were occurring about whether Gentile converts needed to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses in order to be accepted into the Church. The church leadership met together and determined that this wasn't necessary and put an undo burden upon new converts that wasn't adding anything of value to their faith. They then determine what standard of observance they wanted to keep and adapt from the Law of Moses to be followed by the disciples of Christ. It's a valuable story about how what it looks like to worship God can change over time, but the true spirit of worship never changes. An important step to having that spirit of worship is settling disagreements and laying aside preconceived notions of what worship has to look like based on the past, making space for what worship can look like in the future.

However, that's not the story I'm talking about. I'm talking about the explosive argument between Paul and Barnabas about whether or not to take John Mark with them on their travels.

Verse 38 gives the explanation for the conflict as one where Paul doesn't trust John Mark because he left them in Pamphylia and refused to work with them. But how much of this is from the earlier stages of this conflict that Paul may have caused by creating a hostile environment towards the assistants who traveled with them? The fact that Barnabas is still willing to work with John Mark, whose name is on the gospel of Mark, says we don't have all the details of this story, and not all the issue centered on or was caused by John Mark.

Verse 39 tells that "the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other." Barnabas took John Mark and went to Cyprus, leaving Paul behind. It's the story of a conflict that arose in church leadership, largely from Paul's refusal to work with someone he didn't like, that remained unresolved as they continued forward in their ministries.

It's not the picture perfect image of total unity and fellowship between church leaders, who are able to lay aside their differences and preferences to work with each other through disagreement. I imagine that's why this story has been left out of the Church curriculum for some time.

Reviewing the Sunday School manual that was in use before Come Follow Me, nothing about this conflict was mentioned. Come Follow Me not only doesn't use this material, it seems to be actively trying to conceal it by focusing on a discussion topic (Line Upon Line) carefully crafted not to use any of that material. It also isn't included in the targeted reading, which invites members to read Acts 15:1-25. Anyone following along solely with the emphasis given in Come Follow Me isn't going to come into contact with this story.

I think that's a real loss to our community, if I'm honest. There is no sin in recognizing that church leaders are human who don't always get along with each other, who can exist in a state of ardent disagreement with each other while still accomplishing the work God has sent them to do. They can be staunchly in their own opinions about someone else, which are later proven to be wrong. (See 2 Tim. 4:11 and Col. 4:10) In their own human frailty and weakness, they can completely misjudge someone else's character and potential. Their stewardship over the Church does not give them perfect knowledge about people and who/what they have the capacity to accomplish.

It's an important lesson for understanding conflicts and dissensions that happen later to the Church in Missouri, where several members of the Quorum of the Twelve leave the Church and have to be replaced. (See D&C 114 and 118) While many of the narratives (and curriculum) relating to this time period attribute apostolic fall to sin and disloyalty, it's more accurate to say that these divisions arose from conflicts that church leadership at the time were unable to resolve.

Church leadership in the time of Acts couldn't perfectly resolve conflicts within their ranks. The restored church is no different. If we avoid and conceal prophetic fallibility continuously, we fail to prepare our people to know how to handle it and move forward through it.

If we want our people to be able to move forward in faith like John Mark when confronting that fallibility, it will help greatly if we tell that story in our classes and learn from that choice.

The Meaning of Integrity

On the 3rd of October in 1992, Sinead O'Connor performed Bob Marley's "War" on Saturday Night Live.

She concluded that performance by ripping up a picture of John Paul II, in condemnation of the sexual abuse of children by the Catholic Church.

Two weeks later, O'Connor appeared on stage at Madison Square Gardens for a Bob Dylan tribute concert.

This is what happened to her there.

Here's the thing though.

She was right.

She was right that the Catholic Church had a widespread, international cover-up of sexual abuse of hundreds (thousands?) of victims that wouldn't come to light for almost another decade.

That entire crowd, many of whom were not Catholic and had no personal experience with the church to draw from in assessing her claims, booed her off-stage all the same.

Call it the Dunning-Kruger effect. Call it being confidently incorrect. But the word I like best is wrong.

They were wrong.

Everyone who lambasted Sinead O'Connor in the media for the message she delivered was wrong.

She was right. They were wrong. And the price of their wrongness was that the abuse of children at the hands of Catholic priests went on for almost an entire decade longer. Not because it was a secret. Not because it wasn't known. It was because when confronted with the truth, no one who heard it was prepared to believe it.

Kris Kristofferson said Sinead O'Connor had integrity. And let's be clear about what integrity is. It's not stating an unpopular opinion or belief, regardless of the reaction it gets from other people. It's the act of telling the objective truth, no matter what the consequences are, especially in protection of someone who cannot defend themselves from harm.

Conservative pundits, paid actors, and politicians don't have integrity because they're willing to debase themselves publicly by abusing marginalized people for money, without apology or remorse. The fact that they remain unchanged by visceral public rejection is not integrity. In so much of what they say and do, they've been proven to be dishonest, if not confidently incorrect. But remember, that just means they're wrong. And refusing to admit that they're wrong when they've been corrected (or in many cases, caught) with the objective truth makes them liars. And liars, by definition, do not have integrity.

Integrity is what happens when you tell the truth that no one wants to hear, it costs you everything, and you still keep telling it anyway.

This is what so many youth leaders taught in the Church. Especially in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when I was a youth and Integrity was one of the Young Women values: "Till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me." Job 27:5

So it should come as no surprise when those same youth (now adults) look upon the words of those like Donald Trump and all who support him and see the lies for what they are, who refuse to support any of them because it would mean giving up their own integrity. It's what they taught us to do. They can't take any of it back now.

On Elder Renlund's Stethoscope

Having witnessed the outcry that followed this talk, the fact that Elder Renlund's reaction to his wife putting his stethoscope into a shadow box is such a surprise makes me think a lot of folks having those reactions haven't worked with many doctors.


In the time I spent working as a nurse in veterinary medicine, I worked with six different doctors as their nurse, in both exam rooms and in surgery. Doctors are some of the most neurotic, chronically particular people you could ever work with.

As a nurse, my job was to anticipate the needs of doctors and bring them the things before they would ask for them. To do that, it often meant knowing where they left their stuff, going and collecting it, and bringing it back to them. Or knowing exactly where their stuff was and leaving it there. Which was the right choice depended entirely on the doctor and their preferences.

Stethoscopes, otoscopes, charts, pens, medicines, the list goes on forever. It was my job to know where they were at all times and make them instantly accessible at a moment's notice. It's the most important skill a nurse ever learns, and it's a thing that can't really be taught. The better you get at it, the harder it becomes for anyone else to ever take your place. There is no other relationship like the wavelength of a doctor and a nurse who have been working together for many years, the way they can communicate without even having to speak.

There are doctors whose stethoscopes you just don't touch. I worked for doctors whose stethoscopes I never touched. I worked for other doctors whose stethoscopes I repeatedly took back to their desks a half a dozen times every day. Doctors having access to people who are paid to be attuned to their needs and preferences like this breaks their ability to be normal with other people where this relationship doesn't exist.

As soon as I read details of the story about his wife putting his stethoscope into a shadow box without asking first, I winced immediately and thought to myself "that was a mistake." But I would think that because I was a good nurse. 

Sometimes, you do things for your spouse in a desire to help or to make them happy that just falls flat because you didn't understand them or the situation well enough to know how to help them. My husband is an engineer and a tinkerer. I don't touch or move any of his things without asking first because I don't know what I could be interrupting, what I might break or lose. And I also learned that lesson by making that mistake. 

To view this story as a public shaming of Sister Renlund presupposes that what she did was a moral failure of some kind, that Elder Renlund presented it as a moral failure when it was a misunderstanding at best. If you've managed to be married for any appreciable amount of time without having what you intended to be a nice gesture go completely wrong... I dunno, tell us your secret? Because I'm confident that's not the life the rest of us are living.
My husband and I celebrated our tenth anniversary this year. There are still things about him that baffle me entirely. Eternity scared me at an earlier stage of my life because it seemed like it would get boring eventually. The idea that decades from now I could still be just as baffled by something he does is an exciting prospect, if I'm honest. There's no room for boredom when you marry an engineer. That's what I've gathered so far.

P.S. In case Sister Renlund somehow sees this: you're a saint and an angel for being married to a doctor. I could never and I'm endlessly amazed by those who can!
[The follow-up posts two days later after extensive conversation with many different perspectives.]
I get that we've landed on "avoid telling public stories about a spouse's mistakes without making it crystal clear that they've okayed everything you're going to say." But I'm still concerned how many of you are fine touching your spouse's stuff without asking.
Maybe it's because my marriage includes at least one ADHD weirdo with no object permanence, as well as a large collection of all manner of hobbies. But the fastest (and pretty much the only) way to start a fight in my house is to move something without giving a heads up.
My husband sews. I know not to use his fabric scissors for anything other than fabric. He works on mechanical watches. I don't move any of those projects at all because the pieces on some of them are smaller than you can possibly imagine.
I knit. He knows to be extremely careful about moving any knitting projects because if he drops even a single stitch, my reaction will be angry, immediate, and disproportional to the situation.
Don't create a household where it's normal for anyone in it to assign ongoing value or utility to other people's stuff, where it can disappear without their consent. It's not a good way to show respect for the people you love. I say that as someone who grew up in such a house. The stress I still feel in my body when I can't find something, the sheer panic from having things I treasured disappear, has never left me.
This is not how you make for a responsible adult who "knows better than to just leave their things around." It's how you make yourself unsafe to someone you care about, who will never fully feel safe in your presence because you don't respect the things they care about.
Respecting my husband's possessions isn't patriarchy. It's the courtesy we each would show to any other person if we were left unattended with their belongings. 
The idea that this somehow disappears because we're married to each other is just...
Bring that one up in therapy.   

"I could never be a convert" and Other Lies I've Heard

In response to me telling literally any story from my formative years as a member of the Church, I get a response that I'd like to unpack and dismantle, so no one ever feels the need to say it again:

"Wow. You're so strong. I could never be a convert."

I'm not here to turn whether being a convert to the Church is harder than being born into it. That is not the conversation we're having. There are no pissing contests here, so let's just not with all of that.

Much of what was hard about joining the Church as a teenager to me were not obstacles that the Church created. They were obstacles my family created to my participation in the Church. There are people who would blame the Church for that, but I don't.

My mom spent a long time processing the feeling that she just wanted me to be Catholic and I was just never going to be. All parents want things for their kids they're not going to get. This one was hers.

This played out in so many different variations of the same conversation: 

Me: I'm going to Church.
Mom: No you're not, because I'm not taking you there.
Me: Fine, I don't need you to take me, I'll find my own way there.
Mom: Whatever. [goes back to sleep]

There was one Sunday, however, where this was different. My family was getting together to pick crabs (it's a Maryland thing) on a Sunday and I was expected to forego attending Church to be with them. Had my mom just asked or invited me like a normal person, it would've been fine. Instead I got "Come with us on Sunday or I'll know who is really most important to you and I'll never speak to you again."

At that stage of my life, I didn't like crab. I didn't like the smell. I didn't like getting my hands dirty. The Old Bay seasoning, like lemon juice on a paper cut, finds and sears every open wound without apology.

At 16-17 years old, I'm having to navigate my mother's insecurities around something truly important to me in such a way that she wouldn't take it from me. I wasn't thinking about that Sunday. I was thinking about every Sunday after it, how she would treat me, and how to prevent this power struggle from becoming a pattern in our interactions with one another.

So I missed Church. I sat there, not eating, just to make her happy.  

I'm not the one who turned one Sunday away from Church into some existential crisis. With very few exceptions most members are reasonable enough to say "It's family time. That's not a big deal. There's always next week." The Church and its members didn't do this. My mother did.

So to the extent that I sat there feeling guilty and anxious about the week to come, it wasn't from some extremist or fundamentalist dread of divine retribution for missing one Sunday at Church. It was wondering what the fallout of this power struggle would be, and if God could help me navigate it effectively. 

That's what I prayed for that Sunday. That somehow, this situation which had gotten completely out of control, could find some peace to it.

I had a notebook with me and I think I was taking notes for the family tree I was starting to build. My grandfather's sister, my great aunt, was there that day. She noticed what I was doing and invited us back to her house afterwards. A cousin of hers had sent her an exhaustive family history for her side of the family. It had been sitting in a box with all her things for years, and did I want it?

Yes. Yes, I did.

The younger version of myself saw it as a miracle, that God could bless me wherever I was, even when I wasn't at Church. That extreme and exact obedience about going to Church no matter what would've cost me this opportunity. And best believe I bring out this story every time any person in any lesson tries to teach that version of extreme, exacting obedience. To view the world that inflexibly is contradicted every day by the real situations members of the Church have to live in.

But as I'm getting older and I think about that story more, I'm realizing something important. The prayer I said for my family, for us to have peace with each other, was the only reason I was able to think such a thought. In every moment of that interaction, I wanted to be bitter and spiteful, ill-tempered and mean as only teenagers can be. I was in a moment in which my maturity and my instincts were not sufficient for my needs. Had I been left to my own devices, I wouldn't have done the right things in that moment. It wouldn't have turned out for the better the way it did. I would've made sure of that because I was angry and hurt about being manipulated the way I was.

The prayer for peace I said for my family mattered more than anything else I might've accomplished that day. Prayer, that moment I took check myself, is why that situation turned out the way it did. 

I'm only doing the same thing that members of the Church do constantly when they find themselves out of their element and backed against the wall by life. I prayed for help and tried to do the best I could with the insight and correction God gave me.

So could any member of the Church do what I did in that moment? 


They do it every time they pray. 

I, and the converts whose stories you learn about in your family histories, are not superheroes possessing some deeper, magical connection to God that is fundamentally different from yours. Converts aren't inherently more spiritual or filled with greater faith than other members of the Church by virtue of being first. That's not how this works.

I am who and what I am today because I've had a lot of help from people who weren't converts. My community, made of disciples of every kind and experience, is the reason I still try with my family after all this time. The help and wisdom they have given me is part of that miracle. I couldn't do this without them.

Remember that as we enter the Ancestral Worship portion of the LDS liturgical calendar. 

Pioneers were regular people who narrowly avoided pushing people into horse manure by prayer and the grace of God.

 Converts are human just like you. And if you were in their shoes, that's exactly what you would continue to be.

Prayer in the Time of Gun Violence

I hate every impact that Christian Nationalism has had on society. The one that I hate most, as a deeply religious person, is what Christian Nationalism has done to prayer.

Because "thoughts and prayers" is such a powerless, meaningless phrase coming from them—because all prayer requires real intent and action to be sincere—it has led an entire generation of people to believe that all prayer is powerless and meaningless.

I don't want the people around me to hesitate to pray for me when tragedy strikes. I love prayer! I love the way communal prayer is supposed to deepen our love, our commitments to each other as a community. Sincere prayer brings peace to me and to others in many faiths, which does have a positive impact on the world. Sincere prayer has power to change the world for the better.

But because we've been placed in the ridiculous position of trying to stop bullets with prayers alone, "thoughts and prayers" has become a ridiculous thing to offer in any situation because the people saying that have no intention of offering sincere prayers backed by action.

Prayer has become a casualty of gun violence in my country. The thing that many of us need most to face that violence has become an object of mockery and scorn. What a loss that is.

Christian Nationalism did that. Christian violence did that. Christian hypocrisy did that. And I can't even blame people for feeling that way. If I didn't already treasure prayer the way I do, I might feel the same exact way.

Mormon Feminism and Me

I'm finally getting around to reading Mormon Feminism and I've made an important discovery.

Claudia Bushman was the bishop's wife over what eventually became the units I attended in the stake where I was baptized. The Elkton Ward was in my hometown. Doug and Susan Taber were the very first people I met when I was in the Neward 2nd ward as a teenager.

This is the ground where my discipleship began.

Claudia Bushman assembled women in dignity, dedicated to making the Church a more equal place everywhere she went. That's where I was baptized. The ripples of her presence are still felt there.
The sexism and deprioritization of women and their contributions I have experienced in other corners of the Church never happened to me there. Claudia Bushman and so many of the women she knew were the reasons why. It was a garden they tended carefully where women could grow.
I just bought a copy of Susan Taber's book, Mormon Lives: a Year in the Elkton Ward. Flipping through the index, I see so many names I recognize. These are the people who gave me my foundations as a member of the Church. They were the people who taught me the gospel, baptized me, and gave me the foundations I needed to walk through the Church expecting to be treated like an equal.

I'm going to end up getting similarly derailed with a lot of the writers, works, and projects that get mentioned in passing in Mormon Feminism. It'll probably take me a long time to finish because of that. I don't mind though.
As it turns out, my reflexive reaction of "this would never happen to me back home" wasn't just wishful thinking. It wasn't an accident or a fluke. It's the legacy of Mormon women who came before me who did the work to make the Church a better place. And if there's anything to take away from a book called Mormon Feminism, surely that is it.

Why Supporting Gender Affirming Care in the Church is Important

A bot asked me on Twitter if I support gender affirming care for minorsno doubt to stir the pot with the people who were already in my comments. Thing is, I don't need help to stir the pot. So lets talk about it.

Under the umbrella of gender affirming care are all kinds of treatments for both queer folks and non-queer folks of every age. Let's talk about some of the ones I use and receive.

I have a chronic illness called PCOS that affects the natural balance of male/female hormones in my body. I am a cisgender woman with male hormones in my body that I don't want. I take medication to remove those excess androgens from my body. That is gender affirming care. I receive it to make the hormonal composition of my body match my gender. Without that medication, I would have male pattern baldness, I would grow a beard, and that testosterone would create chaos inside of my body.
My condition is genetic. My paternal grandmother and her mother both had some version of it. My great grandmother had a lot of the same unwanted hair growth. My grandmother struggled with her fertility ended up having a hysterectomy before she could finish having children.
I was born with this condition. I had it as a teenager. I didn't get any kind of healthcare for my condition as a teenager. I needed gender affirming care that I didn't get because my mother didn't think it was important. I live with the consequences of those decisions every day of my life.  
There is no cure for my condition. I will be managing this circus, which was allowed to progress unchecked for decades because of conservative attitudes towards women's healthcare, for the rest of my life. I am sick all the time and I'm never going to get better.
Between my Catholic mother, BYU, and my mission, I didn't get any real treatment for my condition (because the first step is usually using birth control as hormone therapy) until I was in my early twenties and already married. That allowed my disease to progress to a point where I will never have children without spending $20-30k on fertility treatments.
This is what denying me gender affirming care has done to my life. 

So do I support withholding gender affirming care from underage people? 
 No. Not at all. I had that decision made for me in the best interest of others and their agendas, not what was best for me, and I will be dealing with those consequences for the rest of my life. Children and young adults deserve to receive the healthcare they need, not the healthcare that strangers in churches think they should be receiving. Especially when folks in those churches don't know the first thing about the people they're restricting treatment from.
Russell M. Nelson is a doctor. Nevertheless, he is not MY doctor. He is a surgeon, not an endocrinologist. He doesn't know the first thing about my health, my needs, or the treatments for my conditions. No one in a medical setting would let him anywhere near my case because he's unqualified to practice this type of medicine. So why should I, or anyone else, be comfortable with him or anyone else in the Church, being allowed to interfere in these decisions for church members through policy changes and church discipline?
Nothing about an ecclesiastical office qualifies someone to make my medical decisions for me. Conservative folks with a Twitter account, a cable package that includes Fox News, and the email addresses of politicians aren't qualified to treat my medical issues. 
The same way that preventable suffering during miscarriages and pregnancy losses are the consequences we're now living with because of anti-abortion legislation, the same thing will happen with bans against gender affirming care. The collateral damage goes far beyond underage transgender people. Conservative folks are so determined to punish transgender kids and their parents for being different, they're willing to destroy the lives of anyone and everyone else as collateral damage along the way.
Why? Because punishing trans people never was ultimately what this was about.
Remember: all culture wars, moral panics, and identity politics are the cheap Party City disguises for class warfare. When rich people in power can keep our lives in shambles, we're easier to control. They want you to hate me so we won't ever organize against them.

Celebrating Pride Month at Church in 2023

We've made the decision to start going back to Church in-person. For the long, ridiculous saga of what has kept us away for so long, all of that is here.

Since this decision coincides with Pride month, I bought myself something in preparation.

Image Courtesy of KerspiffityPins on Etsy

In my voyages across the internet, I saw a queer person say that the corporate, sanitized message of Love is Love needs an update for our current moment.

They suggested "Queer People are in Danger."

It has never been more important for allies to make themselves visible. Not just for the sake of queer folks knowing where the safe ports are in the storm, but to willingly put ourselves in the gap between them and those who would do them harm.

If someone has a problem with queer visibility in my congregation, let them express it to me, the person who is least affected by that expression. Let me be the one to say, without hesitation, "It's a shame that when y'all taught that families are forever, you didn't mean mine."

Let me be the one to ask, "Who made you the judge of my sister, my brothers-in-law, and many of my friends? When exactly did Jesus Christ put you in that position?" 

Let me be the one to drop whatever I'm doing and sing "Jesus Said Love Everyone" like the choir kid I am. Admittedly, I still don't know the words. I was never in Primary because I'm a convert. But for my queer friends and family, for those in hiding in the pews next to me, it's a small thing I can do to make the people around me a little safer.

Whether we can admit it or not, whether we like it or not, our congregations are overwhelmingly not safe places for queer people to approach God or find rest to their souls.

We cannot change what we won't acknowledge, so acknowledging it openly is the place to start.

Note: This was originally posted on Twitter. Within hours, my friends wiped out much of the seller's stock. I then posted follow ups with other products LDS folks could consider to show their Pride support. Here are the links to those:

By the next day, there were all kinds of people being foolish in my mentions, interrogating me about how I can support queer LDS people and still follow the prophets. You know, because those two things have to be mutually exclusive. Here was my response:

I find it endlessly fascinating that whenever a dude tries to confront me about treating queer people with dignity and respect at Church, they always question/accuse me of not following the prophets. Not Christ. The prophets, specifically.

If you think the leadership of the Church have given you an open license to bully and exclude queer people and those who love them from the Church, it's because you don't have the scriptural literacy or moral rectitude to know any better.

I've been in the Church for seventeen years. 

I've lived through the tenure of enough church leadership to know one thing for certain: they agree on absolutely nothing, including this. 

Those who look to church leadership for an absolute, unchanging consensus on any issue are going to be disappointed.

That is the one thing they have never been able to produce because they are human.

I didn't join this church for the sycophantic fan club of prophets, whose reverence for church leadership borders on idolatry. 

There are LDS folks who criticize Catholics for the way they revere Saints, when the way y'all treat church leadership isn't that different.

I joined the Church to worship Jesus Christ, not the servants he employs. It is his example I care about most. His teachings are the foundation of my life. His voice is the one I seek. His radical compassion, empathy, and love is what I am striving to emulate in my life.

Jesus Christ was kind in ways that many of our leaders were not and are not. Thank God for that. It would be a real shame if an omnipotent God's access to any of us was frustrated because of some guy named checks notes Dallin. 

Some of y'all want so badly for the Church to be a country club of the comfortably like-minded, you forget the example of the Savior, who never once vaulted himself above anyone, who had no use for wealth or status, who never once preached uniformity as a virtue. It is Christ who conquered death and the grave. It is Jesus who has risen, who will be my judge in the last day. It is to him I will answer for how I spent my life and my time.

Not to the prophets and not to any of you.

If the moral choice of my age is whether to love queer people and make the Church safer for them, or to allow rich people and paid actors on Fox News to convince me to dehumanize and exterminate my own siblings in Christ, I'll be honest: I'm taking my chances on love. 

I've spent way too much of my life being entrusted to teach Latter-day Saints their own beliefs, scriptures, and the words of your own prophets for "but what about the prophets?" to be the question I'm being asked right now. I've been every kind of teacher I can be in the Church. Every age and gender, in multiple countries and languages, called and set apart by every priesthood leader I've ever had.

If that thought perturbs you, maybe it's you who needs to work on your testimony of the priesthood. Not me.

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