Not long ago, Heather sat in the row behind the deacons with her husband and three beautiful kids. Everyone knew it was their designated spot where they filed in every Sunday, settled in the pew and raised their hymnbooks in song.
These days, Heather sits here or there or anywhere–an appendage to a friend’s family (but never alone, because we’re not that kind of ward). And every week, as the talks turn toward marriage, parenting, children, Heather’s shoulders begin to shake with sobs. Concerned friends offer tissues as she mops her face and fights for composure.
And still, she stays.
I asked Heather how she finds the courage to come Sunday after Sunday, “I’m rebuilding my life right now,” she responded, “and I want to do it with Christ and with my fellow ward members– even when it’s painful.”
Having experienced shoulder-shaking sobs myself– the sharp intake of breath, the compression in my chest, searching for a tissue (and soaking it with tears and snot), the panic that sets in when I just can’t stop crying and the furtive search for escape routes– I marvel at Heather’s fortitude.
“Those three hours at church are the best and worst hours of my week.” She told me, “The talks and lessons remind me of everything I’ve lost, but I cling to the promises of the Atonement.”
For someone going through a truly difficult problem, Sunday meetings are riddled with land mines. We all have times when we struggle to attend church (and if you haven’t, just wait, life will throw you a curveball). Personal crises, faith issues, problems with leadership or other ward members and simple weariness all make church attendance difficult. Some disagree with doctrines; some disagree with people; some just find it too hard to be there.
Why should we stay?
How can we stay?
I’m offering my answers to those questions and I’d love for you to share your ideas in the comments. As Saints, we’re gaining an increased understanding that the church is a hospital for sinners, not a shrine for those who have already attained perfection. My friend Heather trusts her tears will always be met with love and sympathy. And even though many, many problems can’t be discussed openly, her openness gives the rest of us permission to sob in sacrament meeting too.
Our safety lies in the gospel, anchored in our testimonies of Jesus Christ. I know this is true. No matter the confusion in my life, the trials I can’t talk about, the questions which remain unanswered, I know my safety, the safety of my family, and our happiness depend upon keeping our covenants, prayer, scripture study and regular church attendance. I love the words from Pres. Hinckley offered in General Conference shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks:
I hope that all of us who are members of this Church will be absolutely loyal to the Church. The Church needs your loyal support, and you need the loyal support of the Church.
I hope that prayer will take on a new luster in our lives. None of us knows what lies ahead. We may speculate, but we do not know. Sickness may strike us. Misfortune may overtake us. Fears may afflict us. Death may place his cold and solemn hand upon us or a loved one.
Regardless of what may come, may faith, immovable and constant, shine above us as the polar star….
Our safety lies in the virtue of our lives. Our strength lies in our righteousness. God has made it clear that if we will not forsake Him, He will not forsake us. He, watching over Israel, slumbers not nor sleeps (see Ps. 121:4).
Oh, how I feel the power of those words! Do yourself a favor and go listen to (or watch) the whole talk.
Now, does this mean I believe my friends outside of the church are doomed to a lifetime and/or eternity of misery? Of course not. But we are Saints. We’ve made covenants. I once sat in an interview where a priesthood leader asked the interviewee, “Do you want my advice? Because once I give it to you, you will be responsible for it.” We are responsible for the greater light and knowledge we’ve gained from the gospel.
Forget my words and just read President Hinckley’s talk again. He simplifies everything beautifully.
How to stay? (Not just in the church, but through that boring Power Point in Sunday School.)
OK, the first few tips are obvious. If we aren’t reading our scriptures, praying regularly, attending church and the temple (where possible), we really don’t get to complain. Treat these activities like life-saving medications– do whatever it takes to find the time. I’ve talked about Sheri Dew’s brilliant talk ‘Will You Engage in the Wrestle?’ before, but it’s worth mentioning again.
Next, try not to take anything personally. At my house we often quote Hanlon’s Razor, “”Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” People are NOT trying to pick on us; they are just stupid. Paul says it prettily:
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 1 Corinthians 13:4-5
Part of our duty as Christians is learning NOT to be offended or easily provoked. It’s HARD. Honestly, there’s not a week of my life when I’m not repenting my failures against charity.
Wait, I shouldn’t have called it a duty, when learning true charity is a privilege. I am happier when I am kind, when I envy not; vaunteth not myself, am not puffed up… And a ward family provides ample opportunity for cultivating the true love of Christ.
Third, distract yourself. Sure, you’ve been taught to pay attention at church, but if those tears are truly flowing or if you start ruminating on something bothering you, it’s time to pull out a pen and paper. Make a grocery list, write in your journal, draw pretty pictures. I especially love the suggestion of our friend Hildie who takes nice stationery to church with her, looks around for someone who may be struggling and writes a note of love and appreciation.
I’ve gone far over my allotted word count and I want to hear from you. Please share your thoughts and ideas. Thanks for staying. We need you. We love you.