When I Was a Child
Growing up, I went to church weekly except during bouts of strep throat or flu. Even during rare family vacation travels, we packed Sunday clothes and shoes no matter our destination.
High School Diplomacy
The day before my first high school model U. N. conference, vague uneasiness coalesced into realization: I’d be away for the weekend without access to the priesthood. I’d miss church while in good health — unheard of. I asked Dad for a father’s blessing.
The promises pronounced on my head during those hallowed moments spoke peace to my soul. I still marvel. They unfolded in tangible, testifying ways beginning with the drive to the beach-town hotel, unfolding in layers throughout the three-day conference, and continuing beyond the years-later conversion of a friend I met there.
Pregnant Pauses 1, 2, 3
Hyperemesis gravidarum sounded ominous when my obstetrician casually pronounced it, but the name understated the misery of 24-7 nausea and vomiting. Retching woke me from sleep. Hurling doubled me over mid-step. Puking as a passenger made us pull over. The scant times I attempted attending church, I did so with a sick-bucket in hand — after learning the hard way that too few footsteps fell between gagging and spewing. For four debilitating months with each pregnancy — a year of my life — my devotion descended to bowing at the porcelain throne.
Then, like mothers before and after me, the demands of infants and tiny tots meant more months of weary, winded worship while walking the halls to lull little ones. I often wondered whether I’d gotten one thing out of a day’s attempted worship. But as soon as I asked I received an answer: Though scarcely participating, I’d shown up to show my children what mattered to their mother.
When Mom’s cancer resurfaced, this time in her brain and spinal column, she again needed 24-7 care. I stayed with her in sacred mother-daughter time while Dad and my husband took our young daughters to church. During some Sabbath days in the precious three months remaining to Mom, we welcomed visits from priesthood brethren who brought then blessed the sacrament bread and water. Fellowshipping sisters brought casseroles and reminiscing, compassionate company.
In the second year seeking diagnosis for my husband’s alarming symptoms, his lucid days decreased. The neurologist and psychiatrist advised we never leave him unsupervised. My world shrunk to the circumference of caretaking, with outings largely limited by having someone else available to watch him. (If it seems a chore securing a sitter for a four- to six-year-old, try finding someone to tend a forty-six-year-old.) Twice a month, I treasured a couple of hours of scheduled, sanity-saving reprieve at a writers group and with my Relief Society book club sisters.
“Good” days devolved without warning. Even if he awoke well enough for church and remained coherent by the time he’d dressed and buckled himself into the passenger seat, he often couldn’t stay. Most weeks, I sent our teenagers, hoping they’d fill their souls while seeing their friends.
Meanwhile, I assumed he’d someday be well and wouldn’t want others retaining memories of his asylum-worthy actions. I allowed only a trusted few — like the proven-faithful home teachers who’d ministered regularly despite his frequently bizarre statements or occasional, catatonic failure to acknowledge their presence — to see him at his worst. I dared not ask for the sacrament to be brought; I couldn’t predict how he’d react or behave.
A Grave New World
Fog blurs memories from my first years of unexpected, widowed single-parenting. Grief kept me from fully attending church: Even when present, I wasn’t there. Songs of the Spirit brought raw emotion to the surface. My husband’s death crushed the overall, nearly quarter-century pattern — worshipping together — I’d assumed would continue the rest of my days. I spent Sundays weeping and wandering hallways or sobbing in bathroom stalls more than contemplating in the chapel or classrooms.
By the time I managed to muddle through all three hours of church, my youngest teenager suffered concurrent crises of faith, spirit, and body. Her needs, the counsel of her doctors, and the whisperings of the Holy Spirit either sent me back home as soon as I’d taken the sacrament or kept me home with her most Sundays for yet another extended period away.
I hit my head in early July. Nearly eleven Sundays later, I can (finally!) open the fridge without its tiny, bright bulb forcing tears, but I cringe at overhead lights and can’t tolerate noise. Twenty minutes stretches the upper limit of face-to-face interaction before my injured head bows — not in supplication but in pain requiring counterpressure and quiet.
I can’t handle congregational conversation, much less singing accompanied by piano or organ (which is not only painful but frustrating considering how much I usually enjoy making a joyful noise in songs). I’m again absent from church — for how long I don’t know.
For Now and Forward
It’s not easy seeking closeness with the Spirit while staying away from church. We’re called to gather often as “fellowcitizens with the saints” and with “the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). Meeting together is an essential part of who we are — of who I am.
Long before my first non–strep throat Sundays away from church, my parents taught me to tend my spirit with the Sunday school answers some find so simplistic, but when I can’t be there, I’ve found these same answers still help:
I’ve switched to audio Scriptures in English for now. Although I struggle balancing the volume — between quiet-enough-to-avoid-hurting and loud-enough-to-hear-over-tinnitus — it’s less painful than using my eyes. I’m not feasting on the Word in the same way I have at other times, but I’m keeping my soul fed.
I’m more comfortable pleading for others’ wellbeing than my own. It’s even harder to meekly align my faith in asking “not my will, but thine, be done” and mean it (Luke 22:42). And it’s not enough to limit myself to my own prayers. I need more.
Asking for the sacred prayers of sacrament administration in my home allows me to renew my covenants. Requesting priesthood blessings — prayers of healing and comfort — allows me to exercise my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In both cases, my petition benefits me directly but also aids members of my ward who practice the priesthood they hold by serving me.
Like other seasons when crises scribbled their revisions over my calendar notes, I’m forced to reframe my service. To inject the Spirit of the Sabbath into my weeks, I have to look for kind little acts within my current capacity: a brief text or private message of support, a smile (even if forced) at the pharmacy, or an increase in fast offerings.
Sundays and Someday
Sometimes we take tumbles and bounce right back up. Sometimes we don’t.
The only guarantee I know, the anchor I cling to, is the knowledge that God knows and loves me — and every soul who has breathed or will ever breathe the air of this earth — and that His Son already knows and will sustain me through my sins, sorrows, shortcomings, sickness, and soreness.
The promises of what will come aren’t a dangling carrot to keep me in line but an assurance. As one of my professors said three decades ago, there will be a reckoning. The books of life will one day be balanced. Not in this lifetime, but they will be balanced. And all will be made right in the eternities.
How do you stay close to the Spirit when circumstances keep you away from church participation?