My Own Iron Rod

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Me at this exact Girls Camp in 2009

At 14 years old, I looked about the same that I do now, except somehow much ganglier and with a nice set of braces on my teeth. I was awkward and anxious, but funny and loyal to my friends. At this point in my life, Girls Camp was the peak of my spirituality. I loved all aspects of it: the camping, the outdoor activities, the bonding, the sisterhood, the spiritual growth. But many memories of my time at camp each summer are less sunny. I frequently experienced heat exhaustion. I was stung by a scorpion. Twice. I dealt with drama among other girls, watched as leaders became terrifyingly ill, and even peed myself once (but that’s a story for another day).

A specific experience has been weighing on my mind for the past couple of months. My third year of camp, the leaders planned a specific spiritual activity. All of the girls were gathered together and blindfolded. In groups, we were guided to a wooded area and told to hold firm to “the iron rod,” or more realistically, a long PVC pipe. We proceeded to walk along the path while our leaders aimed to tempt us off the rod. Many were laughing and saying ridiculous things. “Follow me! We’re having a party!” or “There are a bunch of cute guys over here, come with us!” However, a select few chose a softer approach.

About halfway across the rod, I heard a soft voice whisper to me “Amber, there is a rock in front of you. Take my hand and just step to the right.” Before I knew it, I was being pulled across a clearing to sit on a bench with one of my beloved leaders. Tears were streaming down both of our faces. I had messed up and I was so embarrassed. I thought I was in tune and responsible. I thought I was doing the right thing by listening to the soft voice guiding me away from an obstacle. In actuality, I had been deceived and I was ashamed.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized how gross this activity really felt. At the time I felt that I was learning an important lesson on how easily I could be led astray. In fact, I know that was the intended lesson. But I also think that intent is the problem. When young people tie shame and embarrassment to their choices, they carry that shame with them for years, and likely, their entire lives.

Being deceived is not fun. It hurts so much more when it occurs at the hand of someone you believed could be trusted. The unfortunate truth is that those we trust most tend to be the ones most likely to deceive or betray us. We are more likely to believe the people we trust. But trusting someone does not exempt us from being lied to or even merely guided in the wrong direction. The people we trust are not perfect, and we should not expect them to be. We can hope that they have our best interest at heart, but tragically we also cannot be surprised when they are wrong.

All those years ago, I subconsciously learned the lesson that my leaders were capable of deceiving me and leading me away. The soft, sweet voices are often the easiest ones to trust, but soft and sweet doesn’t necessarily mean true. I have spent the past several years trying to discern truth from deceit.

It is in our human nature to be flawed and incorrect, and that nature does not exclude leadership at any level. I am on the path of finding my own truth. Thinking critically about the truths church leaders proclaim has been liberating. By refusing to accept things at face value no matter who they come from, I have found my own direction. I strive to always be guided by love.

The Iron Rod is the Word of God. The Word of God at is very core is love. Throughout my life, I have been taught things that both foster and inhibit pure love. I am starting to recognize that I can choose to only hold onto things that foster it for me.

Becoming Christlike and learning my divine potential is tied completely to my ability to love and accept those around me, and in extension, to love and accept myself. I am learning to be comfortable forging my own path, even when that means unlearning things that soft, kind voices taught and continue to teach me that don’t help foster love in my life.

Comments

  1. Amber, I appreciate you sharing this very much; in particular, I appreciate hearing your perspective on the Iron Rod activity. I never went through it; instead, for years I was one of the leaders who helped set up the rod, or played one of the tempters. From my perspective, the lesson you found yourself struggling with was the point of the exercise: I was found it rather brilliant that, in the midst of the sometimes delightful, but admittedly sometimes condescending, conformity of Girls Camp, here was a lesson in trusting in yourself, in refusing to let others tell you want you needed to do, in holding on despite all the “soft, kind voices” tell you otherwise. I never thought about how, from the perspective of the young women, this was actually a lesson in betrayal, in trust shattered. But obviously, you’re correct; it may have been what I saw, but it is what you felt as well. Thank you for opening my eyes to another, equally valid understanding of an experience all my daughters went through.

  2. “I am on the path of finding my own truth.” Is this truth shareable? Would the rest of us recognize your truth as truth? Is one the arbitrator of of one’s own truth?

    “I strive to always be guided by love.” What, exactly does that mean? Does love serve as a guide to morality, ethics or righteousness? Does not Jesus admonish us “If you love me, keep my commandments?”

    “I am starting to recognize that I can choose to only hold onto things that foster it (love) for me.” Is it possible that concepts, people and actions one currently perceive as loving are really not or vice versa? How does one really know?

  3. “Does love serve as a guide to morality, ethics or righteousness?”

    It does. Jesus told us that when we show love to others–and especially those other people may see as being lesser–that we are keeping his commandments and showing love towards him.

    “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
    Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
    And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

  4. My daughter participated in this activity in the same stake a couple of years behind you. She came home in tears because the women leaders whom she trusted deceived her to make some abstract point that was beyond her as a younger teen. She was upset for weeks. I tried talking to the leaders and they blamed her for not having the right attitude or the spiritual capacity to understand the higher law of this activity. I remain livid. These leaders put a clever idea from some Sugardoodle / Pinterest url above my daughter’s need for 1. Trusted leaders and then 2. Comfort and assurance that her feelings mattered.

  5. Brilliant! I’ve been troubled by stories of this kind of object lesson for years. (There are several variations.) This is the first valuable insight learned, that I have heard or read about. Although I’m sorry for the years of shame and I’m not sure the insight is worth the cost.

    There’s an inherent problem with this sort of exercise, illustrated in this case by the pvc pipe vs the soft voice. The “iron rod” of the vision gives the impression of something solid and secure, like a stair railing. And we perpetuate that image with a tangible solid pipe or rod. When in reality the “iron rod” is itself voices and stories. Voices of prophets, in some cases. Nonetheless, voices and stories from human beings. We will always and forever have trust issues. Who to listen to? And the outward appearances are flesh and blood, not ferrous.

  6. Is it a lack of imagination, a lack of thought, or what that would impel the use of such an object lesson without regard to the wide variety of “lessons” that could be learned from it? For some, e.g., there is not much difference between the “soft, sweet voice” used in this example to lure one away from an imagined obstacle and the “still, small voice” we are taught to listen for and follow. Such a group activity seems rather far from an ideal of “Preach My Gospel” — to “teach people, not lessons.” Maybe I’m hyper-sensitive to this sort of thing because I experienced teen-age years as a time of thinking quite differently from whatever I understood of other teenagers and from much of whatever I understood of important adults in my life. While it is possible to learn a valuable insight as Amber eventually did, I continue to wonder at times how many don’t, or who learn a wrong lesson and remain stuck there, as well as whether an eventual, valuable insight is worth the cost.

    Tangent 1: 1 Nephi 8, Lehi’s dream, uses “rod of iron” quite differently from its use in Psalms and Revelation. I have wondered why iron, why not brass or bronze, why use a phrase with an extraordinarily different meaning in other scriptures? What does iron symbolize here, if anything?

    Tangent 2.: Lehi found his way to the tree of life without having noticed or held to an iron rod. He was following a man in a white robe. What does that aspect of Lehi’s dream-experience mean? Could it be:

    Tangent 3: Nephi later identifies the rod of iron as the “word of God”. That phrase has been used to mean different things. I wonder sometimes whether, for some, it may be most useful to think of it as a reference to Christ [“his name is called The Word of God” Revelation 19:13] rather than to what other voices say are his commandments.

    The trust issues will always remain — not only who to listen to, but when to listen, what to listen to, how to understand, and when to act — and if the “Word of God” is Christ, how/when to trust our own perception of his voice.

  7. The Other Chad says:

    Old Man — all truth is always one’s own truth. The sources for the “Word of God” – prophets, scripture, prayer – are really one source: your personal connection to the Spirit. Since all three sources are inconsistently reliable, it’s really up to you to work it out.

    The problem with this camp exercise is that the “Word” is portrayed as a solid handrail when, in reality, life teaches us there are gaps in the rod(s) that require a few faithful steps until we catch hold again. Hopefully we’re facing the right direction spiritually when we encounter the gaps.

    Take it from President Harold B. Lee who counseled Elder Packer: “The trouble with you is you want to see the end from the beginning. You must learn to walk to the edge of the light, and then a few steps into the darkness; then the light will appear and show the way before you.”

    It would be fun to develop a camp exercise that reflected this reality.

  8. other Tim says:

    Lesson Learned: Do not trust church leaders. While they might have good intentions (questionable) they are at best woefully incapable (stupid) or naive, at worst prideful and selfish. This girl learned at a young age to not trust people. Bravo. This pathetic and damaging object lesson is even worse than the disgusting “licked cupcake” or “chewed gum” lesson too many young women have been subjected to.
    What would have been so beautiful is if this girl, or any young woman, would have stood up at testimony meeting at the end of girls camp and said something like, “I want to thank my leaders this week for teaching me that I can not trust them, that they are out there to deceive me and shame me. What I have learned this week is that I must follow my own path, and that these leaders here cannot lead me to God. I must find the path on my own”.

  9. Dark Traveler says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. It sounds awful. It has taken me many years and sad experience to learn two things. 1) The gospel of Jesus Christ is simply love; to love God and to love each other. 2) The Holy Ghost needs to be my source of truth. Even a “prophet, seer, and revelator” may be seen as the “arm of flesh”.

  10. “What I have learned this week is that I must follow my own path, and that these leaders here cannot lead me to God. I must find the path on my own.”

    As silly as I realize now that this probably sounds to many, Other Tim, I have to say in all honesty that this is actually pretty much exactly what I thought this activity was exemplifying, and I thought it was great for exactly that reason. To lay out for young women an object lesson in holding to their own convictions, and refusing to listen to anyone else, even someone whose voice they recognize and trust, seemed to me to communicate something vital about trusting in the spirit, and not the group (even if that group is “the church”). The degree to which I am now seeing, thanks to Amber (and I have been conversing with my adult daughters as well about this, who attended the same stake Girls Camp as she did, and went through the same activity), the way in which the Iron Rod activity, however much it communicates the lesson above–and Amber’s own reflections about learning to distinguish between “truth and deceit” shows, I think, that it does connect with that principle, at least somewhat–also emphasizes a perverse kind of obedience, a determination to avoid embarrassment above all, shames me a little. The way an activity is interpreted by the adults who orchestrate it is in no way necessarily related to the way an activity is experienced by the young people who go through it, and I should have known that.

  11. Elizabeth says:

    “The unfortunate truth is that those we trust most tend to be the ones most likely to deceive or betray us.” That statement is so incredibly sad. I couldn’t live if I believed that to be true, “most likely to betray us.” Betray is a strong word. I’m in my 70’s and can remember very few times I’ve felt what I would call betrayed, and never by the ones I trust the most.

  12. My son also had a disastrous experience with this same object lesson. He came to what seemed like a junction, or end to the rope that was serving as the “iron rod” and a leaders said it was OK to let go now as they had come to the end. Well, it wasn’t the end, and they were led off to a group of those who had “failed” the lesson. Those who had let go were publicly shamed in the wrap up discussion of this exercise. He was angry because a leader he trusted out right lied to him in an effort to shame him. He actually went inactive for two years after this special camp for the YM.

    I really think this object lesson backfires on the leaders more often than they realize and that word needs to get around that the leaders lying to the youth and then shaming those who believe and trust them is a really stupid idea.

  13. Regarding Old Man’s concern about the author’s personal truth, it is actually the only way we can make our way through life. David Holland discusses the three sources of truth we struggle with: scripture, revelation to organizational leaders, and personal revelation. When push comes to shove, it is always up to us to determine whether scriptural passages or prophets are right or not. It always comes down to personal revelation. It is the final arbiter of truth. If we just go around mindlessly following either ancient written texts or modern men, we will inevitably go wrong somewhere. Only when we trust our own moral compass and the whisperings of God to our minds will we have inner peace, regardless of what anyone else says.

  14. I’m not a huge fan of contrived spiritual experiences, and have only been on the edges of organized “faith walks.” My three daughters and wife (as leader) have had involvement over the span of many years. They said the person giving instructions at the beginning always emphasized clearly that there would be people trying to get the girls to let go and to ignore them, that when they reached the end someone would remove their blindfold, etc. Usually it was just simple calls and invitations to let go, but occasionly there would be a more subtle invitation by a leader or older girl. The younger first year girls often caved, while the older more experienced girls didn’t. Maybe the slight lesson to be learned is that in fact, leaders and family can deceive. A sad lesson indeed, but not a bad one to learn in order to avoid possible abuse. My opinion to avoid embarassment — if a youth does “let go,” lead him away a few feet off to the side, explain the basics of repentance, then lead him back to the rod and let him continue on his way. Otherwise leaders send the wrong message that once one let’s go of the iron rod he can never take hold of it again.

  15. I had almost exactly the same experience that Anna’s son had. A neighbor of 9 years and YW leader for 2 (whose voice I knew well) told me I was “done” so I “let go” and “failed” the experiment.

  16. This is a good post, Amber. I’m going to be thinking about it.

  17. Object lessons are not what we generally seem to think they are in the church. We treat them as entertainments that add variety to instruction by teaching a lesson in a clever way. Teachers assume either that the point of the lesson is obvious or that it will become obvious when they explain what is intended. But that’s not at all how object lessons work, as Amber’s excellent post illustrates.

    The power of object lessons is precisely in their ambiguity. Object lessons are fabulous tools for teaching because they open up possibilities, and they make people think. They start open-ended conversations that can go places teachers never anticipated. Of course, teachers have to be prepared and willing to encourage those open-ended conversations. We waste the lesson’s power when we treat it as a simple, obvious demonstration. Even worse, when we squelch the kind of thinking that object lessons encourage, we can turn them into a confusing or bitter experience.

    Object lessons are a huge favorite in church curriculum. A little more pedagogical thinking about the nature of object lessons would go a long way.

  18. Many years ago, the Ensign published a piece written by one of the Seventies. It contained an object lesson about a church member who became engaged in horrific sins which started out as just viewing pornography. The trouble was I knew the man he was speaking about. The general authority had not bothered to find out the truth. The subject of his object lesson was a man who suffered from a severe, basically untreatable mental illness. His real craziness started with a suicide gesture. The pornography came after that. And the horrific behavior was totally unrelated to the pornography use but came because his wife asked for a divorce, something that left him in complete terror. And she asked for a divorce because the advice of their bishop had literally pushed her husband into the horrific acts. All around her, priesthood leaders insisting they knew the truth of the situation without anyone bothering to consult her about her own marriage.
    Too often, we in the Church find the answers we are seeking, the ones we are conditioned to see. We do not actually seek truth and we do not ask the questions designed to obtain it. Neither do we go to the people who might have it if we bothered to ask. We certainly do not seek after we find whatever answer fits with our preconceived beliefs regarding truth.
    Are we willing to see object lessons as simplistic pictures of reality, that may not represent truth at all, and probably need to be eliminated? Or are we too self-satisfied with the cleverness of our object lesson? Is the real problem that we want to pat ourselves on the back as having taught truth and warned the flock? Too often in the Church, I see the latter.
    And the lack of concern about teaching young people to not follow their church leaders is appalling. Perhaps we should record their mother’s voices telling them to let go and play that for the children so they can learn to distrust their parents. (That would probably end this abuse fairly quickly.) Sounds to me more like a Communist Cambodian reeducation camp than LDS girls camp.
    What happened with teaching the gospel? Is it so powerless we have to manufacture fake spiritual experiences to prop it up?

  19. LL,
    Seriously illuminating comment, I hope it causes as much reflection in you as you expect in others. Let’s shine some light on your thoughts in a shorter, but inverse way:

    Every day the bloggernacle publishes pieces written by critical voices of the church. Too often, critical voices in the Church find the answers they are seeking. What happened to following Christ by receiving his servants? Are we so enthralled with the world that we have to manufacture philosophies to explain our lack of spiritual experiences?

  20. Ryan Mullen says:

    Thanks for sharing your take on this object lesson, Amber. I don’t recall a specific instance, but I’m pretty sure I’ve participated in this lesson as both a kid and an adult without giving it the deeper analysis you exhibit here. I’m curious as to the role that shame/embarrassment played in your thought-processes and reflections. Would your experience have been tempered if your friends hadn’t been there to see you get pulled off? Or if your leaders immediately let you continue and finish the course?

  21. I think IDIAT suggested an excellent way to make this object lesson a positive one:

    –if a youth does “let go,” lead him away a few feet off to the side, explain the basics of repentance then lead him back to the rod and let him continue on his way. Otherwise leaders send the wrong message that once one let’s go of the iron rod he can never take hold of it again.

    I also think this post & the comments should be required reading for every youth leader from Sunbeams on up.

  22. I would like to see this put together with a 2nd part that shows the grace and atonement of Christ. Perhaps someone who comes and speaks to you at the bench after a few moments and gives you direction to return to the rod. All of us have been deceived; none but Christ have been perfect. We all have stepped away, but Christ’s atonement can bring us back.

  23. LL, we could do better in training our bishops in recognizing the symptoms of mental illness. And we should. Not so they can be the primary source of treatment, but so they can get people to appropriate treatment. And so the bishops will be aware of the limitations of the current medicines.
    I feel the increased willingness to address mental illness and suicide is a step forward, but I am troubled because we only want to talk about anxiety and depression and not the more serious illnesses that cause people to experience actual psychotic breaks with reality or whose thought patterns are terribly twisted by their illnesses, such as bipolar, borderline or schizo-affective disorder. We are not hearing these addressed in the talks I have read. Based on the people I have known, we deal with these by excommunicating the sufferers.
    I do not like object lessons and I hate artificial situations designed to manufacture a spiritual experience, such as trek. One of the great spiritual experiences I ever had took place on a department store escalator. While I have had them in the temple, they usually come in quite ordinary circumstances as I am pressing forward in life. Perhaps that would be a better lesson to teach our young people. Lehi’s dream was for Lehi. You can have your own, with your own symbolic elements and your own holy ground. You do not need these artificial ones. With real spiritual experiences, the Holy Ghost is there to testify and uplift. With these fake ones, the wrong lessons can be drawn and they can be a hindrance to your spiritual progress.

  24. Regarding mental illness and bishop training…

    First, I prefer the term mental diversity. There is a lot of mental diversity in my family. Brains work in different ways. And describing every difference as an illness is judgemental, unnecessarily negative, and inaccurate. My children will not be cured/healed of their differences. The different way their brains work is part of God’s glory. What my children need is support and safe spaces to practice new tools and techniques that they are learning in therapy.

    Second, in my experience, support for mental diversity begins with diagnosis. Diagnosis describes differences and sheds light on how people struggle. Diagnosis informs the type of support individuals will benefit from. AND Diagnosis involves hours of testing from experienced, talented, and devoted mental health professionals/doctors/therapists. The variety of tests, the analysis of the tests, even the equipment required for these tests is staggering, and again I view it as part of God’s glory that they have inspired individuals over hundreds of years to figure all this out and to build on understanding.

    Bishops, unless their vocation is in the mental health field, are wildly unqualified to support individuals struggling with mental diversity. There is no quick training that bishops can receive that can replace what professionals have spent years and years studying, practicing, and implementing.

    The limitations of the office of Bishop, as well as the potential to seriously damage individuals who are already struggling, is unsustainable and to me terrifying. I believe the time has come for stakes to employ a trained/professional/licensed mental health professional to fulfill the “counseling” role that Bishops have assumed for wards.

    Knowing the paperwork and consent forms I’ve had to fill out for mental health support, I cringe at the lack of legal protection in the current LDS model for both the individual and the institution.

    Anyway, education is always a good idea. But there is no quick patch or online-traffic-school-type solution to qualify bishops to council individual struggling with mental diversity.

  25. DoctahInDaHouse says:

    Calling mental illness a form of diversity minimizes the symptoms of those who experience the devastating effects of a wide range of illness. We don’t label a heart attack a form of physical diversity and we likewise should not label a psychotic break a form of mental diversity. Diabetes, prostate cancer, influenza, and asthma are all serious health problems. So are schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, anorexia, and depression. None of these conditions are just one of many ways to be healthy.

  26. Thank you to the last commenter and apologies to all. I have no wish to minimize anyone’s suffering or struggle.

    Autism, dyslexia, and ADHD are abundant in my family and are forms of neurodiversity or mental diversity. They are not mental illnesses. With support and understanding, they are sources of great strength and pride. We believe that our cool, unique brains are part of God’s glory. We are living proof that there are many healthy ways to live and approach life.

  27. New Iconoclast says:

    “And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:

    And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.”

    How horrible that after so many lessons and talks about the importance of listening to the still small voice, that they used a “still small voice” to lead Amber away from the “rod.” What a great way to undermine every lesson ever taught about understanding the Spirit.

    I love the suggestions by TinaR and bobwhid that a brief detour from the “rod” with an encouraging word on repentance would be a great addition to these activities, it they must be held at all. Perhaps that feature could be added by more compassionate leaders in cases where the sound counsel to avoid the whole thing in the first place is not taken.

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