Thank You for Staying: Part Two

June 15, 2017

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.

Every week.

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.

Why stay?

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 Comments

  1. Reply

    Anonymous

    June 15, 2017

    Almost ten years ago now, we went through the trial of adultery. This is not something I could get up in testimony meeting and talk about, thereby receiving lots of hugs, support and such. I went through it almost alone, except for the Savior (and the Bishop, RS Pres. and my sister) who was with me every step of the way. What made going to church really hard was the fact that just a few weeks before my tragedy, another sister miscarried her first baby (at about 6 or 7 weeks). One week they were joyfully announcing their pregnancy and the next she was up in Testimony meeting whining and wondering if the Lord really loved her. She did that for the next year and a half until she got pregnant again. Meanwhile, I sat in the pew with tears streaming down my face, my heart breaking because I can’t tell my story and get all the love, hugs, prayers, suppers, visits, support, etc. while I go through my trial. It just didn’t seem “fair” or right. It seems to me that only those who have physical trials, like disease or death, get to talk about it in church, while those of us who go through the pain of the consequences of the sins of family members sit silently with no balm (except the Savior) for our broken hearts.

    I have had to work hard on forgiving that young sister, who didn’t know how irritating her “testimonies” were to me; well, more like rubbing salt in a wound, as she would question whether the Lord loved her while praying with and attending the temple with her husband! I knew the Lord loved me, I wasn’t so sure about my husband, who I had to live with daily.

    The thing that gets me through my trials is my relationship with Jesus Christ. I won’t let anything or anyone come between me and the Savior; and I won’t let any hurt feelings stop me from being where I am supposed to be. If I remember correctly, it was at that time of great trial that I began bringing the Conference Ensign to church with me and if I needed to distract myself from a meeting which felt painful or uncomfortable, I would get out the Ensign and read a talk, underlining passages that spoke to my soul.

    Over the years I’ve learned to recognize that some (or many) that seem to be rude at church often are suffering from pain that they cannot share. A hug and kind words go a long way to giving relief to the suffering. Those who seem reserved and/or withdrawn may also be suffering silently. Patience and kindness are needed with each other as we heal from wounds both seen and unseen.

    One last thought. To those who have trials that are easily talked about, please be mindful that many others in the congregation have tribulations that can’t be talked about. Your trouble is not bigger or more important than ours just because you can tell us about it in Testimony meeting.

    • Reply

      Paula

      June 16, 2017

      Thank you so much for sharing something so raw and real. I love how you say that nothing will stand between you and your relationship with the Savior, including hurt feelings. That is so powerful and beautiful.

      I am reminded of my favorite hymn, Lord I Would Follow Thee, The words, “In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can’t see.” I had a bishop who would close fast and testimony meeting with the words, “thank you to those who bore their testimonies, heard and unheard, today.” I have often thought about those unheard testimonies and prayed for those who are struggling that somehow they can know they are loved and cared for. And that I can be the one to show it. I have had some very difficult times in my life when going to church was so hard. I would try to think of and excuse to not go but I could never justify it so I went anyway because I knew that what were the Lord wanted me to be. Church isn’t just for those who have perfect lives (which is a lie. No one has a perfect life.) or for those who need to repent. It is for those who are hurting on all levels, seen and unseen.

  2. Reply

    Marian

    June 15, 2017

    that was beautiful. thank you!!

  3. Reply

    Anne Marie

    June 15, 2017

    Michelle, I always love reading what you write. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Church attendance and membership absolutely tap into our deepest doubts, wounds, disappointments, hopes, joys, and victories. I truly feel that it is a place where we come face to face with some of the most searing truths about ourselves and about our fellow men. And, Truth can be both brutal and beautiful.

    There are definitely many, many reasons people struggle to come to church. Our life stories are all woven with threads of brokenness and healing. For a stretch of several months some time back, I wrestled with paralyzing panic attacks at church. At times, it became too much, and I would have to either go home or wander the hallways. It took months of searching for answers. Thanks to the support of therapists, family, friends, and doctors, the panic attacks at church are now rare, and attending meetings is not as daunting as it once was. Being in that place for a stretch of time gave me a lot of compassion for people who struggle to come and meet with large groups of people. I am still an introvert who would much prefer to worship with a handful of people, but I keep going to Church, knowing that it’s ultimately where I need to be, as hard as it is sometimes.

    I really love your quote by Razor. That is brilliant. I had never heard it.

    I also love an essay by Eugene England entitled “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel”. Many deep insights about the possible purposes of why God places us in congregations of followers.

    Anonymous, I am so sorry that you have had to walk such painful paths. Your commitment to Christ is clear.

    Thanks again, Michelle

  4. Reply

    Michelle Lehnardt

    June 15, 2017

    Oh anonymous, I am so sorry. Thank you for sharing your heart.

    Thank you Anne Marie for your vulnerability and sharing so honestly. I think you’ve come to the heart of it with this: “Church attendance and membership absolutely tap into our deepest doubts, wounds, disappointments, hopes, joys, and victories. I truly feel that it is a place where we come face to face with some of the most searing truths about ourselves and about our fellow men.”

  5. Reply

    Kim in Virginia

    June 16, 2017

    Thank you for a beautiful, incredibly touching, real post. And thank you to each of the comments. I’m copying this and sharing with dear friends and saving to share in the future. Beautiful truths!

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