Altered Shirts and Stable Patterns

Posted on September 14, 2012


I dreamed this morning of a man with broad shoulders and a strong jaw. I woke up alone, as I always do. I am single.

In my newsreader today a recent story from the Huffington Post proclaimed a “crisis of singles has arrived” among the Latter-day Saints. “More like a Great Depression,” I thought wryly and clicked on. I’ve been divorced for 11 years, and at 46, divorced is likely how I’ll spend the rest of my life. There’s no crisis left in it; it’s just the way things are. Like my grandparents who lived as adults through The Great Depression, I have a life and I live it, regardless of the imperfection of my circumstances.

Do I fit in a married church? Do I squirm uncomfortably through lessons on the sacred, eternal nature of the union of man and woman? Do I have place, as a divorced woman, in a kingdom that is founded in a family structure, when mine is missing a vital element?

My responses to those questions have changed over time, until the answer to each is “peace.” Why? Because of the Proclamation on the Family.

The world is rife with individual circumstances that don’t match Mayberry ideals. War tears communities apart, depriving their innocent citizens of a safe, peaceful place to raise wide-eyed cherubs. Financial reversals rob families of the pleasures of modest leisure. Health concerns shift focus from apparently “best” endeavors to simple maintenance of life. It’s cliche to say that life’s not perfect, but somehow we seem to expect that it should be and walk about wounded and a little touchy, recoiling painfully when the lesson or the pulpit address discusses the beauty and sacredness of something we don’t have.

And it’s okay to be wounded. But it isn’t meant to be a permanent condition.

Elder Holland in a leadership training some years ago shared what he called “The Parable of the Homemade Shirt.” He spoke appreciatively of the care his mother took in making him shirts when she couldn’t buy them. She looked the one he liked over, then did her best to reproduce it. What she really would have liked was a pattern to help her with measures and angles, to insure that she didn’t ignorantly perpetuate an error in future shirts, to remove the time-consuming challenge of trying to figure out how to cut and piece it. He concludes the parable thus:

Now, I hope this helps you understand why we talk about the pattern, the ideal, of marriage and family when we know full well that not everyone now lives in that ideal circumstance. It is precisely because many don’t have, or perhaps have never even seen, that ideal and because some cultural forces steadily move us away from that ideal, that we speak about what our Father in Heaven wishes for us in His eternal plan for His children.

Individual adaptations have to be made as marital status and family circumstances differ. But all of us can agree on the pattern as it comes from God, and we can strive for its realization the best way we can.

As a reluctant seamstress, I can attest to the power of a pattern and the need to sometimes nip or tuck here and there. I can also attest to the power of cultural forces that seek to assuage the pain of unpleasant circumstances by altering the ideal to fit them. A nip and a tuck is quite different from a redesign. My particular shirt is short-sleeved, because the sleeves were torn from mine. I can walk about with ragged edges, or I can mend them and hold onto the pattern.

Pieces of the Pattern

The family is central to God’s plan for humanity. Everything we do should center on protecting families. While one of the best ways to do that is to have a family and organize it under revealed principles, when that isn’t possible we uphold the family as an institution and help strengthen others in their family work. Every person on earth is part of a family and has a role to fulfill. We are part of something much larger than our day-to-day experience.

Marriage is enlivened by parenthood, and children are entitled to that foundation. In a society that is child-focused, as the plan is, marriage between men and women who honor each other provides the best stability for children and for that society and mimics eternal work temporally. While the individual adaptations to this pattern are many and varied, altering the pattern would subvert eternity and destabilize the best chance for children to thrive.

Special Instructions

The Proclamation also provides some nice techniques for making a snazzy shirt, with tips for finishing edges and adding pockets, collars, and cuffs. “Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities.” Knowing this helps us not only implement these principles in our families, but in our souls, with an expectation that organizations and societies that encourage these principles will thereby support healthy children, families, and communities. Hence the Proclamation is not sent just to mothers and fathers with ideal families, but to “responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere.”

The Proclamation also shares warnings, just as a good pattern outlines crucial areas where one cannot cut corners. “WE WARN that individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring, or who fail to fulfill family responsibilities will one day stand accountable before God. Further, we warn that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.” As responsible citizens, we have in the Proclamation an outline to direct our community engagement. And, as repeated in a later letter from the First Presidency regarding families:

We call upon parents to devote their best efforts to the teaching and rearing of their children in gospel principles which will keep them close to the Church. . . . However worthy and appropriate other demands or activities may be, they must not be permitted to displace the divinely-appointed duties that only parents and families can adequately perform (First Presidency letter, Feb. 11, 1999).

There may well be a crisis of singles, but a different one than the journalist for Huffington or I might perceive, because it’s about bigger issues than a ward full of financially secure commitment-phobes or the fact that I wake up alone. As Elder Holland concludes, so will I:

Thank you for understanding why we are concerned about protecting all members of families, whatever your age, and why we speak in opposition to trends or forces that would seek to destroy any aspect of God’s eternal plan of happiness. How grateful we are that the Lord has said, “I will give unto you a pattern in all things, that ye may not be deceived” (D&C 52:14)

So, I’m okay, with lots of work to do.

However, if you happen to know a guy with broad shoulders and a strong jaw …

Next week begins an online celebration of The Proclamation on the Family, in which this post will appear at some point. Please join the hosts to read the views of many online writers regarding this prophetic document revealed for our time.

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