When families aren’t forever

Steve has asked me to guest blog for a bit. I think I’m supposed to be the voice of young single women in the church. I don’t think I can speak for all of them, but I have a voice. By way of introduction, my name is Jennifer, I don’t do anything special like run a magazine. I’m just trying to finish my graduate degree and I work in the primary presidency of my branch.

For my first post, I’d like to discuss the way we teach our children about families. There is an absence of material in the primary manuals for the many children who come from broken homes. This silence translates into insensitivity. My family had a lot of problems when I was growing up. My parents lived at opposite ends of the house and there was constant contention. I hated the primary song, “Families Can be Together Forever”. Some Sundays it made me cry. I didn’t want my family to be forever, not the way we were. I probably knew instinctually that our family would break up before we all died.

Almost twenty years have passed since my tenure in primary. I’ve worked in the primary of every ward I’ve attended for the past eight years. The lessons about families have not changed. The songs have not changed. At least now we have pictures of children and families that aren’t white americans, finally. This year the primary theme is on eternal families. I looked for something in the materials that addresses our children who don’t have two parents, or who live with extended family. There is nothing.

How does it feel to be a child who hears how wonderful heaven is because we’ll have our families, but she has never met her father? Or, what must it be like for the child whose parents aren’t members so they don’t have a temple marriage? We teach them that they don’t have an eternal family. They lose their families when they die. How many children have divorced parents? What about the children with one excommunicated parent? What do we teach them about their families? Nothing. Not one word. My parents finally divorced and I still don’t know where that leaves me in terms of my eternal family. They broke their temple seal, so does that mean I’m not sealed to either of them? And what about my grandparents? Am I sealed to them? I can’t answer their questions about non-traditional families because I don’t know the answers. It shouldn’t be this hard.

When it’s my turn to do sharing time I try to be sensitive to the feelings of those from non-traditional-nuclear homes. But, I wish I had some help from the primary leaders in Salt Lake. I still find it hard to teach these “happy-happy-joy-joy” eternal family lessons. When will the church education catch up to the reality of what ‘family’ means to more and more children the whole world over?

I’m not sure what that would entail. At least we should have answers to questions about non-eternal families and what qualifies as such. I’m not suggesting the church stop teaching family principles. I just wish we could recognize that some lessons are insensitive. We should include something for the other children, those without eternal families. I still remember how sad those family lessons made me feel. I don’t want to do the same thing to another child.


  1. VeritasLiberat says:

    “Callin’ all Israel in
    Come on and learn the plan
    Of lovin’ your fellow man
    But brother you got to lose that sin”

    Now all we need to do is get Sister Gladys Knight to promote this for us.

  2. A collection of random thoughts loosely related to what has been written above:

    One of my favorite moments in film occurs in God’s Army when the missionaries are explaining the concept of eternal family to a man while his kids are crying and his wife is yelling in the background.

    When I was a missionary I found it interesting that the concept of eternal family didn’t seem to resonate with people we met with. People generally seemed more interested in Christ, forgiveness of sin and the resurrection. Among those who had been members of the church for a year or two, however, the idea of eternal family held as much appeal as it did for me. I served in Eastern Europe not long after the wall had come down and I think that people really were thirsting for religion, but they were most interested in the kind that they has a passing knowledge of.

    Frank, why would teaching the gospel plan necessarily exclude spending time focusing on non-traditional families?
    I’m sure that you agree that non-traditional families have a place in the gospel. Judging from the comments on this thread, it appears that many are confused as to what that place is. Why not spend some time addressing that issue?

    Ann, don’t you think that to make a statement such as “the church is ALWAYS behind the times on societal change” is unfair? What about women’s suffrage? I agree that the modern church isn’t usually the first to sign on to many societal changes, but in my view this is often a good thing. The church has been pretty slow to accept couples co-habitating, for instance–a pretty good deal for most of the men I know who practice it and a pretty raw deal for most of the women.

  3. VeritasLiberat says:

    By the way, I’m from a dysfunctional family (I will probably be in counseling for years to come), and I really used to hate singing “Love at Home” in RS.

    However, a friend introduced me to the following variant:

    “There is beauty all around, when there’s NO ONE HOME. . .Time doth softly, sweetly glide, when there’s NO ONE HOME…”

    Now I can hardly keep the smile off my face. :)

  4. Don’t make me be Jim L.

  5. Even worse the copyright notifications got truncated

    music copyright 1979 Nile Rodgers
    lyrics copyright 2004 James W. Lucas

  6. Frank,
    Maybe because people in those non-traditional situations need to be able to understand how to live the gospel, too. My wife grew up in a household where her mother was a convert and her father was not a member, and she says that “eternal family” lessons really hurt when your family doesn’t fit that mold. By ignoring the fact that not everybody comes from the happy two-family, everybody’s active background–the one I come from, BTW, which means I don’t have any personal experience from which to craft a solution–we lose the opportunity to help all of the people in our class, ward, etc.

    And I don’t understand what it means for those children whose father or mother is not a member of the church, not as a result of sin, say, to “start anew.”


  7. Frank, I think that older children and teens can and should be taught that they can establish families different from their own family of origin. But Primary kids, at least the younger ones, just don’t have the conceptual apparatus to think that way. All they are able to hear is that their family is wrong. Especially very young children tend to feel guilty about everything that’s wrong with their families–for instance, most kids younger than 14 or so will believe (in one way or another) that it is their fault their parents are divorcing and will need LOTS of reassurance to convince them that they didn’t do something wrong. Adding to that load of guilt with “God disapproves of your family” is cruel.

  8. Hey kids, try this fun thought experiment at home or in your own ward or branch! It never fails to give people pause and sometimes even freaks them out.

    It is generally held in Mormon doctrine that we will live eternity in perfected resurrected physical bodies (“not a hair of the head shall be lost” etc.). Aside from some confusing suggestions in the King Follett discourse, most Mormons assume that we will have youthful adult bodies. Then picture what it means to live for eternity sealed to eternal families. Imagine hanging with your Mom and Dad or Grandma and Grandpa when they look like your siblings?

    When we talk about eternal families we usually superimpose on the eternities generational differentiations that are limited to this earth life (e.g. Grandma and Grandpa will be wizened and white-haired in the eternities and we’ll be perky youngsters). This is certainly what a Primary age child will do even if the lessons don’t assume an intact nuclear family. And this is an image of eternity which is clearly inaccurate.

    So maybe the way out of the problem is to look at the whole issue of family sealing in other ways. For example, two aspects of sealing that aren’t freaky when you think of eternity with generational and aging differences eliminated are:

    (1) Sealing is important to bind eternal married couples. Every child can hope that their own marriage will last forever, especially if their own parents’ didn’t and

    (2) Sealing is a way of linking all of humanity in one way or another through the primary social unit (the family) but with the emphasis on a broader perspective (vicarious work for past generations; all of humanity can eventually be sealed as one vast family of Adam and Eve).

    I think the objective of focusing on immediate family is to propogandize children for temple marriage. However, this can be accomplished by emphasizing (1) above for their marriages rather than focus on the imperfect marriages of their immediate earth parents.

    Note also that in the early Church, the first sealings were primarily among unrelated Church members not between families. I understand it to have been symbolic of one’s adoption into the house of Israel. The importance of ‘sealing’ is getting tied into the broader family of Israel than to one’s immediate biological relatives.


  9. I am not aware of any humans who have yellow skin unless they used a bad old fashioned chemical tanning product or have really weird looking tatoos. I understand that Asians (whose skin colors range from medium brown to white) do not like to be referred to as the “yellow” race.

    Why purple? Remember this is a Primary song. Purple is a fun word to say and introduces an element of silliness.

    Sister Gladys would be wonderful. Also, do any of you New Yorkers know where Kelly Rucker is these days?

  10. Jennifer says:

    I like it. :)

    I think you’re onto something with the change in focus and perspective. That makes more sense and seems more christian to spread the love beyond the nuclear family.

  11. VeritasLiberat says:

    I love your song.
    But shouldn’t it be “black, white, yellow or brown”?

  12. I think local leaders and teachers are increasingly sensitive to diverse family scenarios, but that Correlation feels that to recognize diverse family scenarios in a lesson!!! would be to give them Correlation’s stamp of approval. I think they ought to loosen up a bit if that will benefit some of these kids.

    If official rhetoric has abandoned the term “inactives” for the gentler “less active,” and now calls investigators “visitors,” I’m sure they should be able to figure out a way to discuss alternative family types in Primary materials without displacing the ideal eternal family model. How about a lesson entitled “One good parent is better than two bad parents.” Think of the discussion that would generate!

  13. VeritasLiberat says:

    I think we should burn that song permanently, just for aesthetic reasons. While we’re at it, let’s also take a flame thrower to “Love At Home,” the soundtrack of “Together Forever,” the entire “I Walk By Faith” songbook, and that horrible EFY recording with the Jets (I had to listen to it for three hours in the van on the way to the DC temple with the YW).

  14. I’d like to see a battle of the Jims to see who claims final hold to the moniker without a surname. Two Jims enter… one Jim leaves.

    I find it striking that the Jims I know online are the most clear-thinking, level-headed people I’ve met. Of course, I also know many knuckle-headed Jims, but they don’t seem to have much of a presence in the Bloggernacle.

    Let me ask a question of both Jims, who probably have an answer handy: why don’t we emphasize adoption into the house of Israel like we used to? Perhaps I’m misperceiving, but there used to be more of an emphasis on our lineage (as in patriarchal blessings) and our role as members of Israel. Has that been de-emphasized, do you think? If so, why?

  15. Jen, I’ve been thinking about this idea for awhile. I don’t know that you’re supposed to be the representative of all young single women in the Church (Karen Hall might differ), but I’m glad you posted this. It brings up some tough questions about the nature of temple blessings, the LDS concept of heaven and how God rewards the righteous.

    For example, I am extremely righteous, and Sumer is wallowing in deep, deep sin. But I love her dearly. Will our temple sealing keep us together after death? What’s the relevance of our personal righteousness? How could a righteous person be happy without their s.o. or other family members?

  16. Jennifer —

    Do you think you could get her to try out the song with the Harlem Branch Primary?


  17. Jim,

    I was just thinking that same thing. It really is funny to think of eternal families that way. Perhaps it is because of our “Man’s Search For Happiness” images.

    p.s. you’re Jim Lucas, not Jim Faulconer, right? So many Jims… there was similar confusion when Steve Cannon and I started blogging together!

  18. JL asks, “When will the church education catch up to the reality of what ‘family’ means to more and more children the whole world over?”

    Maybe we should ask instead: “when will the world catch-up to reality of what ‘family’ means to God?” Why would you have the church spend time focusing on “non-traditional” situations, when the time could be spend teaching the gospel plan. Even those children who come from non-traditional backgrounds, could start anew and apply the standard gospel principles to their own families when they have them.

  19. Jennifer says:

    Kelly is in the Harlem Branch with me. She’s the new primary chorister!!!! (When she’s not on tour.)

    I’ve also been to church with Sister Knight a few times. She would come to my ward in Atlanta when she was visiting her sons. She gave an AWESOME testimony once.

    wow, I’m rubbing shoulders with all kinds of cool people. (The Famous Bushman’s come to our branch once a month too.) Lucky me. :)

  20. My husband is still a believer. I am not. This causes him some pain. We were married in the temple. I still attend church with him. What we both still have is a very deep love for each other and a hope that this will all work out somehow.

    I was a single mom for several years as a member, and I never felt the lack of an eternal family. I think I’ve always had that same hope. I think my children did, too.

    There’s always hope. Your eternal family may not be anything like the one you lived in. It may include people you’ve never met.

    A fluid definition of family is a very good thing, IMO. But don’t expect to see anything like that coming out of Salt Lake any time soon. Maybe in 30 years or so.

  21. Oh no, my last verse was truncated.

    That we are family
    Brother Jesus gathers us ’round
    Black, white, purple or brown
    Brothers and sisters are we.


  22. VeritasLiberat says:

    Oops, sorry. Didn’t realize.
    Purple it is. :)

  23. Peggy! You’re still out there! I was getting worried…

    I like what you said: “The gathering of Israel is what Mormonism and this dispensation are all about, not about nuclear families.” I want to give it some thought and figure out a post on that, I think — we should compare notes. It’s a really challenging subject.

  24. Jennifer says:

    ROTFLOL!! I love it.

    I agree with everything you said. I was fortunate enough to avoid the EFY music but have been subjected to the rest.

  25. Jennifer (JL) says:

    Steve, I think that question needs its own post.

    Nate, Primary didn’t teach a lot of theology in the old days (when I was in it) but we do now. We’re sent a schedule of doctrinal points/principles that we are supposed to teach throughout the year, one for every Sunday. A lot of it is difficult stuff, like ‘what is revelation’ the ‘holy ghost can guide me back to Jesus Christ’, (that one lead to a discussion with 3-9 yr olds on the nature of the holy ghost) [this is why some of my comments may sound naive, I’m used to couching doctrine in children’s language.]

  26. The Victorian/Ward and June model of the family that is promulgated by church materials is not by any means a common model; in the early days of the church, even the church didn’t follow that model. I think as church authorities begin (again) to come from families that didn’t follow the model of mom/dad/5.7 children, more materials will be presented that offer a greater sense of hope and participation in the concept of the eternal family than we are offered now.

    The church is ALWAYS behind the times on societal change…but they are capable of catching up, when the changes are reflected within their own constituency.

    Fortunately, church members are encouraged to seek the truth wherever it may be found. That means that we aren’t limited to correlated lesson materials. Thank the Goddess!

    I’m with Aaron on this, by the way…we really have no clue what an eternal family will look like. I had this weird notion once that a post-mortal husband and wife would fuse together like an egg and sperm to make a new life form.

  27. This is an interesting thread to me. My parents divorced when I was young. My father remained in the church and remarried. My mother left the church and remained single until I was a senior in high school. Working out the theological implications of it all while navigating the emotional and political landmines took up much of my spiritual energy growing up. Interestingly, while I remember a great deal of pain and frustration associated with family when I was a kid, I can’t recall any of it coming from the Church. Looking back, this is a bit odd, since the dynamic Jennifer describes should have fit quite easily into my own somewhat schitzoid childhood. Perhaps it was all happening in my subconscious.

    I think that Aaron hit upon a large part of the problem. We really don’t know enough about what eternal sealings mean to figure out how to make sense of alternative family relationships theologically. (One of the wisest things I ever heard in Sunday School was a lesson where Sam B. made the observation that heaven is a wierd place and whatever it is like it will be very different than what it is like here.) On the other hand the church for understandable reasons is disinclined to launch into ambigious, there-are-three-or-four-different-possibilties-of-how-this-could-be-understood discussions in primary curricula. This may be less of a problem than it appears. I think that the insensitivity that JL refers to has more to do with things like language, examples, etc. than with theology per se. As I recall, there isn’t much theology in primary lesson’s anyway. It seems like it ought to be possible to write manuals that don’t assume that everyone lives in some idealized version of an East-bench Salt Lake City Mormon Family without minimizing the value of committed marriages, loving families, or eternal sealings.

  28. This is the blogger formerly known as Jim NOT Faulconer. I will switch to my initials so that Steve E. doesn’t get confused.

    I was hoping that this thread would die out so that I could resist the temptation to do what I am about to do. However, instead it took a musical turn which has led me into tempation. So with sincere prayer that any unfortunate enough to return to this thread will forgive me my trespass, I herewith yield to that temptation.

    I have proposed that one way to teach the ‘families are forever’ doctrine while minimizing the distress to children with difficult family backgrounds is to emphasize the broader picture — vicarious work for past generations, linking the entire human family into the family of Israel. This can’t be too much more difficult than explaining the Holy Ghost to 3 and 4 year olds. (Did you tell them that he is a friendly ghost like Caspar?). The problem is that the far more powerful message is delivered by music, and as the immeidate prior posts have noted, the painful message of the doctrine is deeply embedded in our music.

    Now even someone from a decent enough family like me can heartily support casting the Families Are Forever song into outer darkness just because of its sickeningly syrupy maudlin melody alone. However, it is not enough to destroy the negative, we must replace it with something positive. Therefore, for those few unhappy enough to have read this far (you’ve had plenty of opportunities to get bored and quit reading) I submit my proposal for a new Primary song to replace Families Are Forever with a view toward teaching the approach above referenced. Please note in my defense that this rests in a strong Mormon tradition of roadshows and bad imitations of other people’s music.

    This is to be sung to the tune of that great 1979 Sister Sledge disco hit “We Are Family.” For those of you too young to remember this classic, you can go to http://www.wearefamilyfoundation.org/MEDIA/dloadmusic.asp to hear a clip. Although technically disco funk, it should be sung with a strong gospel inflection.

    Doin’ family history
    Cousins and grannies galore
    Gonna go find me some more
    “Cuz geneaology (pronounce jeen ee o lo gee with long o’s) tells me

    That we are family
    Father Adam gathers us ’round
    Black, white, purple or brown
    Brothers and sisters are we

    Descended from Adam and Eve
    Everywhere hear the sound
    Spirit chidren comin’ down
    Now evr’body’s got to believe

    That we are family
    Mother Eve gathers us ’round
    Black, white, purple, or brown
    Brothers and sisters are we.

    Callin’ all Israel in
    Come on and learn the plan
    Of lovin’ your fellow man
    But brother you got to lose that sin

    So that we are family
    Father Abram gathers us ’round
    Black, white, purple, or brown
    Brothers and sisters are we

    Sealed for eternity
    In the Bible you’ll read
    That we are all Abraham’s seed
    So go to the temple and see

    That we are family
    Brother Jesus gathers u

  29. Jennifer says:

    This was informative. I think a stronger emphasis on the future and the marriage seal (since that seems to be the only one we kind-of understand) is a good way to go. That’s hard to do with little kids.

    Maybe since we don’t understand eternal families, we ought to stop having lessons on, “my eternal family”, and “I can be with my parents forever if I obey the commandments”. I also think we should burn the song, “Families can be Together Forever”. At least until we can comprehensibly define what that means.

  30. To be frank, I really don’t think about this topic all that much. This is because the more I think about what it means to have “an eternal family,” the less sure I am of what it means.

    Let’s assume that my wife and I are going to the Celestial Kingdom. Let us further consider four possible scenarios:

    (A) My parents are also going to the Celestial Kingdom, and I am sealed to them.

    (b) My parents are also going to the Celestial Kingdom, but I am not sealed to them.

    (c) My parents don’t make it to the Celestial Kingdom, even though I was sealed to them.

    (d) My parents don’t make it to the Celestial Kingdom, and I never was sealed to them.

    How do I even begin to think about the distinctions between these scenarios in Mormon theology? What is the signficance of being able to say “This is my eternal mother,” vs. “This was my earthly mother, but she isn’t my mother any more.” We’re all evidently going to receive some measure of “glory.” None of us is going to cease to exist. So what’s the big deal? Will the impact be most strongly felt at the occasional “Celestial Family Reunion,” where Mom may or may not be invited to attend, based upon where she ended up? Is that all there is to this? It probably seems like I’m being flippant, but I really, truly don’t get what the significance of all this is supposed to be.

    (The psychologically inclined will assume that I have “issues” with my own family … and they will be correct…)

    Aaron B

  31. To Steve E’s comment on the de-emphasis on our membership in the house of Israel…

    I have noticed this too. We no longer hear words in church like “the believing blood of Israel” and I think we’re missing the boat. The gathering of Israel is what Mormanism and this dispensation are all about, not about nuclear families.

    In my work developing branding concepts for companies, I can see how the Church ended up with it’s core brand message of “Families Forever.” It condenses the teachings of the gospel to it’s core consumer benefit — “don’t be afriad, you wont be alone”. This brand message is very powerful and has been very successful for the Church’s marketing efforts.

    I have been discussing new/evolving branding concepts with some Salt Lake types to help the Church become more inclusive. Ideas like: Mormons are like Orientals, we believe we have a great responsibility to the generations that have gone before us and those that will come after us, ergo, our temples. Unfortunately, while these new concepts are interesting, they don’t meet the deep fears and needs of the modern-day consumer.

    Church headquarters is aware of the limitations of the nuclear family image in The Gathering of Israel, but is years away from changing core brand messages.

    Hope this merchandising of our beliefs doesn’t offend anyone too much…


  32. Well, to begin, Jennifer, thank you for addressing this issue. I always thought (although I knew better) that I was the only one with a freaky family. To respond to that first: I just figured that “my” family (who I married) would be eternal. My family (growing up) would have to be where ever they ended up. I still love them and hope they make the right decisions, but it’s their agency. My children will have their spouses and etc. This seems very clear to me. It was hard when I was younger but as I have matured in my gospel understanding I am not having as much struggle with it. It was one of those things I originally had to take “on faith” though.

    However! I am really concerned when I read things like “the church is behind society,” and “behind the times on social change.” We are different from society, and it’s on purpose. In some cases (co-habitating!?!) we aren’t the ones who need to change.

  33. What has happened to Kelly Rucker these days? She used to be such a fixture…

  34. Lauri K. says:

    Where to begin? I, too, was born in a “frazzled home.” Alcoholic and abusive father, listening to nightly fights between my parents, mom gathering us all in the car and spending the night in the car in the park while he slept it off, etc… As I think about it, it’s a wonder I even survived at all – least of all am still active in the church. I remember many of the same feelings that have been shared on this topic, however, I have come to grips with it all this way. When we are teaching children (our own or others in primary), the youth, etc. we need to share these ideas of Eternal Families so that they may someday impact the lives they will grow-up to live. Quite often the lessons that we teach now will come back to them when they are older and making these important decisions in their lives. I have had many a letter from past young women that I taught, telling me how things that I said came back to them in times of need and how they wanted to share that with me. We all know that the world is not perfect, either are families. Even in those that we view to be upstanding
    (you know the one’s we all look at and wished ours were like) there are problems. Remember, He didn’t say it would be easy – He only said it would be worth it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, we need to stop spending so much time worrying about the stuff that we can do nothing about (ie. sealed to parents who don’t make the Celestial Kingdom, etc.) and worry about those things we can. Remember, we have passed through a veil of forgetfulness and that will be lifted when we return to the other side. I’m sure many of us will thump ourselves on the head and go “Oh Yeah!” Our Heavenly Father will have a lot of sorting out to do, so why don’t we just leave that part to Him? What we really need to do is to teach these precious and true principles. Teach that even though situations might not be perfect in our homes, they aren’t in any home (let me tell you – when you teach the Sunbeams and the Bishop’s child is in there – you find out LOTS!) but that’s okay, they still have a Heavenly Father who loves them, they can still be a good example to their family, they can still go to the temple when they are old enough and be sealed to their own family, and teach these principles in their own home, and be such a wonderful example to the rest of their extended family. I have seen such miracles happen where parents and siblings have returned to church due to these examples. I have also seen spouses who have lived with “saints” their entire lives and never understood what they could have had. We just have to trust that Heavenly Father will be there to put His loving arms around us and fix this mess that we’ve made down here on earth. Spend your time putting your arms around these children and loving them. Put your energies into making them feel important and including them in your prayers. Be there for them instead of being here and griping about how the church isn’t doing things right. You have been set-apart for your callings, you have stewardships over these spirits, bring your concerns to the attention of the proper auxillary leaders and seek their council. We are all in this together. May our Heavenly Father bless you as you righteously seek to bring about His kingdom here on earth.

  35. Whoops. I put a “not equal” symbol using less than and greater than signs in front of my abortion parenthetical, and it didn’t show up (expecting html). That should say “women’s rights (not equal to abortion, by the way).

  36. Women’s suffrage was only a positive for the church (IMO) because it gave them more clout at the polls, and the women would vote as the church leaders told them (just as the men would have).

    Suffrage was a valuable first step, and I’m grateful to those who went before me and paved the way. But it was ONLY a first step, and the church is so far behind society in almost every other aspects of women’s rights ( abortion, by the way) that the role of women is more proof than contradiction of my premise.

    That the church is behind society on sexual mores is a two-edged sword. Read the suicide list on the affirmation.org web site to see the down side.

    The church did much better on civil rights than it has on women’s rights. It was only 15 years late, rather than 35 and counting.

  37. You got it right, Steve, that wasn’t Jim F. (though I’m not anxious to cede just plain “Jim” to someone else when I’ve had to give it up myself). But it is okay that he usurped my name since I think his post shows us a way to quickly see the problem with trying to figure out what all of this means.

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