Today, August 21st, 2014 is the ten year anniversary of my baptism, my first covenant with God, and my joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I tried to come up with some awesome way to celebrate…and this is what I ended up with. 🙂 My journey these last ten years have not been easy, but it would have been so much harder if I didn’t have the gospel, the Church, and the membership of the Church in my life. I wanted this to be titled “The 10 Things I’ve Learned in 10 Years”, but for the sake of quality ideas, we are going to have to leave it at 8.
After ten years, I still struggle with my faith sometimes. Honestly, I think I struggle more now than maybe I ever have before. But I have a rock-solid testimony of the reality of the atonement of Jesus Christ, and I know that there is happiness found in genuine gospel-living. What follows is a bit of a memoir, a bit of a confession, and a bit of a celebration. But it is written with a heart that is bursting with gratitude.
It is a bad idea to base your sense of self-worth on whether or not you are able to pull off the “good Mormon” image. I used to be a really, really good Mormon. Shiny temple recommend, marked up scriptures, a closet full of T-shirts and knee-length shorts, and a testimony that you had better believe got shared every chance I got, first Sunday or not. I felt very confident in my standing with God, but also very confident in the idea that other people thought I was a first class Mormon. I’ve always known that I wasn’t the stereotypical perfect Mormon, but I thought that my uniqueness actually contributed to the validity of my testimony and my general awesomeness as a member of the Church. I have never uttered a word from the pulpit that I did not mean. My testimony has always been sincere, and it has always been hard work to maintain. The deepest, most genuine part of me is converted to the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I was 21 I was sent home early from my mission (that is a whole other blog post). When I was 24, after working very hard for two years, I was told that CES was not interested in hiring me full-time. The exact same thing happened again at 25. I’m about to be 27 and am joining the ranks of “old”, unmarried, Mormon women. These things have stripped me of my confidence that, if nothing else, I am good at being a Mormon. There are other things that have taken an even greater toll on my confidence, but they are too personal for even me to share with the internet.
I felt like I could no longer sell myself as a five-star Mormon. I felt more like a three-star Mormon- not bad, but not good, and certainly not special. And honestly, I am still trying to figure out where exactly I am supposed to get my self-worth from. It helps me to know that I have almost always been kind, and I have almost always been authentic- those things have to count for something. All I know on the subject for the time being is that it is a bad idea to base how you feel about yourself on how you think others perceive you.
God cares about the condition of our hearts. It is hard to be mortal, and hard to feel far from God. Some of the pain we experience in life comes from the choices of others, some just comes from living in a fallen world, and some come from our own choices, whether they be unwise or just flat-out sinful. There are all kind of sins- major sins, “minor” sins, sins of omission, sins of commission, sins we commit with our minds, sins we commit with our bodies, sins we commit with our words. We can even commit sin with our smartphones these days. You may have heard of something called a “pet sin”- the sin that belongs to us, that we keep around because you’re lonely or scared or bored. We can sin in our bedrooms, in our kitchen, on our way to work, in our college class, at our boyfriends house, at the store. It is literally impossible to ever fully escape temptation.
There have been times when I felt like God was so displeased with me that he actually didn’t like me- times when I have felt like my sins had driven such a wedge between myself and the Lord that I didn’t even see a point in trying to work things out. I have felt like a hopeless sinner who had messed up just too many times. The good news is that I was blessed with a good bishop who turned around that way of thinking with one simple phrase: “The Lord cares about your heart.”
Our actions, no matter how good they might be, are not what bind us to God. We can’t save ourselves through good works. The only thing that saves us is the grace and mercy of Jesus. And Jesus does not have a checklist of things we need to accomplish before he loves us or is willing to let his atonement work in our lives. The only thing he needs from us is the sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit. “Only the penitent are saved” is a phrase found multiple times in the scriptures. Notice that it doesn’t say that only those who have never sinned are saved. It is the penitent. You could have spent your life paying a perfect tithe, reading your scriptures every day, keeping a 100% home teaching records, and going to the temple every single week. You could have never lied, never stolen, never cussed, never lost your temper. You could have received your Young Women’s medallion at the age of 12 and your institute graduation certificate at 19 (which by the way, I actually did). But still, if you could not be saved if your heart hadn’t humbly sought reconciliation to God. So don’t get caught up on the minutia of mortality- instead, be honest with yourself as you evaluate what direction your heart is looking. Is it looking to the world, to yourself, or to God.
The scriptures are a powerful way to develop spiritual strength and autonomy. I love the scriptures. They have been the backbone of my testimony and my enthusiasm for the gospel. There was more than one night during my investigation of the church that I stayed up past sunrise studying the scriptures (I had a particular interest in the Doctrine and Covenants). My parents bought me my first wet up scriptures a few weeks after my baptism. They had my name printed on them and they were mine, inside and out. My parents have since bought be two other sets up scriptures- one when I left on my mission and another when I began teaching seminary, but I still feel like that first set is more mine than any other has been or will be. I don’t use them anymore because it has lost it’s entire cover, along with Genesis 1-4 and part of 1 Corinthians, but they represent a period of my life when I was learning the most profound truths that one could ever learn, and I was learning them straight from the source- from the word of God.
There is a lot I don’t understand about the Holy Ghost, but one thing I know is that when I read the scriptures, he talks. He helps me see the world for how it really is. He shows me patterns that enable me to liken the scriptures to my real life. He confirms that what I am reading is not only true, but that it has been preserved through the will and love of a God who desires that his children understand his nature and his plan.
My favorite part of EFY is our daily scripture study- a period of time every morning set aside for the youth (and counselors, if they so choose) to read from their scriptures or other gospel literature. Each day we would meet together afterwards and invite the youth to share what they had learned. Usually a handful of kids wanted to share, and it was powerful every single time. I was able to see their eyes opened to truths about God that motivated them to live better and happier lives- truths that they had been carrying around for years in their scripture cases or pockets and were just now becoming aware of.
I love that, in our church, we are encouraged to know for ourselves throughout our lives. When I explain my beliefs to someone, I can rely on the word of God, the Holy Ghost, and my own personal experiences. I don’t have to look to other people for spiritual knowledge or understanding, I only have to look to God.
We should not think of others’ spiritual progress as our own accomplishment. One day on my mission, I was sitting with my trainer working on some elaborate project designed to persuade one of our investigators to be more committed to prayer and scripture study when, kind of out of nowhere, she said to the affect of, “You know, nothing we do really matters.” I thought, “Hold up. You are not seriously saying that we are walking around this frigid prairie looking like nuns just so that nothing we can do really matters.” (I was in Kansas, it was winter, and my mission had a very strict dress code.) She elaborated with something like this, “We spend so much time planning lessons, scheming on how we are going to get people to church, finding members to go with us who aren’t that weird. We feel really good about ourselves when we can respond to their concerns with an awesome scripture chain or recent conference talk. But really, has anyone ever said, ‘I joined the LDS church because my missionaries could recite scriptures really well’ or ‘I got converted when the sisters gave me this awesome colorful calendar dictating what I should be doing when’? People get converted because they are ready to get converted. It’s really between them and God. We just happen to be around when it’s their time to find the truth.”
Please do not take this to mean that I don’t think missionary work is extremely important- I will be singing the praises of the missionaries who taught me until the day I die. But I do think that we sometimes see other people come to God and chalk it up to our hard work. This could be an investigator, a less-active member, a seminary student, and EFY participant, a friend, or even a son or daughter. God uses us to love and lead each other, but our spiritual path is a very personal one that is only walked by two- ourselves and our Savior. When someone excels spiritually, it’s because of the goodness of God, and not because of the cleverness or devoutness of another. If we ever tie our own sense of accomplishment with the spiritual accomplishment of others, then we really are “trusting in the arm of flesh.”
On the flip side, maybe we can take comfort in understanding that when those who we have stewardship over so not flourish in the gospel, it is not because we have failed. If we have loved and we have tried, we have succeeded, and God will be aware of that. In life, as in missionary work, no effort is wasted.
Your friends really, really matter. I have friends from many walks of life, and with many different habits. I’m not going to brag about the rebelliousness of my social circle, but I will say that I am close to people who have a variety of illustrious pasts and presents. If they are honest with me and I enjoy being around them, friendship is not a problem. That being said, I know that the people we spend time with automatically “pull” us to be more like them. I recently had a good friend come into town from out of state to visit family. Upon her arrival, she sent me a text message that read, “Would you want to go to the temple sometime this week? I’m in town, and it’s my goal to go to the ones in all the are when I’m here.” So we went to the beautiful Gilbert temple, where I had such a wonderful time. I had been needing to make it to the temple for a while, but to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have gone that week if it wasn’t for her invitation. Another example is the friend who often sends me one-word texts on Wednesday afternoons: “Institute?” Sometimes I can go and sometimes I can’t, but it’s good to know that there is always someone who thinks of me and whom I can ride with and sit by. It makes going to institute easy.
When you have good friends who are active in the church and sincere in their desire to follow Christ, doing the rights things becomes the path of least resistance. I recently read on reddit (the source of all true enlightenment) that “time+opportunity=sin, even for the best of us.” If you are hanging out in bars, or going over to “watch a movie” at 10pm with that guy whose standards basically don’t exist, or spending a lot of time with your gossipy girlfriends, you are going to be affected, and if you spend enough time in those situations, you will sin. I am not trying to use a scare tactic, I am not trying to criminalize anyone, and I am definitely not trying to tell you how to live your life. What I am telling you is what I have learned for myself by making mistakes and being prideful in my perceived spiritual infallibility. You will become like the people you surround yourself with. It is worth actively trying to seek out and fill your life with good people who will make it easy for you to become the person you want to be.
It is worth it to make it to church ever single Sunday. In these ten years, I have only missed church a handful times. Only once did I not go because I was sick. I skipped stake conference once right after I was baptized because I wanted to go shopping with my mom instead. There may have been about 4 or 5 times that I didn’t go because I was either traveling all day or tied up with my family. So in ten years, I have gone approximately 98.5% of the time. I think there have been two Sundays when I was mad at the world and wanted to punish it by not going to church (logical, right?), but just couldn’t stand the thought of not actually showing up so I made it to church late.
It might sound like I am bragging, but that may change when I tell you that of those 513 times I’ve been to church, I’ve shown up happy only about 2/3 of the time. The other 1/3 I didn’t feel like going for a variety of reasons. I may have felt unimportant and under-utilized. I may have been depressed over the lack of dating prospects in my ward. I may have been under a load of stress because of school or work and felt unable to focus on the messages I would be hearing. I may have felt embarrassed over the way I look (even with a whole morning available to me to do get my face and hair together). I may have even not wanted to go because I felt like I had nothing to wear, since I don’t like wearing the same outfit to church more than once. I tend to feel unpresentable at church if I think l my outfit is boring. When I taught release time seminary during the week and worked in the temple for six hours on Saturdays and was trying to go to institute every week and had an obligation with my calling on Wednesday nights, I became very uninterested in church. Now, I was extremely invested, personally, socially, and at that time even financially in the Church, but by the time Sunday rolled around, I felt like I had pretty much given more than my fair share and was ready for a day where I could just nap and eat straight from the crock pot.
But I always have managed to drag my ugly, stressed, discouraged, entitled, self-congratulatory and/or unimportant self to church. I can’t say that I always leave church feeling spiritually full, but I have never once felt like having gone was a waste of time. Sunday worship has honestly been the thing that has kept my head above water when I have felt like I was drowning either spiritually or emotionally. On my way home, I am allowed to say to myself, “The gospel is still real, I am still a part of it, people are aware of me, and I am alive. And even though sometimes I don’t feel spiritually full, sometimes I do. Sometimes I have those, “Oh THIS is why I needed to come to church today!” experiences. And they are worth it.
The members of the church are not as good as you think they are… Let me paint the picture: They met at BYU when he was just home from his mission and she was a freshman. They have been married for at least a few decades. He makes enough money that she was/is able to stay home with their children. Their house is always tidy and well decorated. Their kids are active in the church, respectful, and easy to get along with. Oh, and there are at least 5 of them. Their family is strewn with talents- musical, athletic, artistic, genius. All of their sons and some of their daughters serve complete and faithful missions. They all marry in the temple. I have the bad habit of picking families or individuals in the church and labeling them as the “perfect ones”. Surely, a different breed of Mormon than I. But when I actually get to know these perfect families, I see that they really are normal. Maybe their perfect priest of a son is actually a total pothead. Maybe the wife has been on Prozac, Lexapro, Welbutrin, and Zoloft and still struggles to get out of bed in the morning. Maybe that prominent church leader, while maintaining excellent rapport with members of the church, is actually short with and cold to his family. (That pained me even to write). And maybe, just maybe, if you show up unannounced, there will be laundry on the sofa and last night’s dishes still in the sink.
The idea of the “perfect Mormon” is a cultural illusion. Yes, there are people who are always happy, there are people who always have a clean and organized house and schedule, and there are families where every member truly loves and is devoted to the gospel. But every has their demons and their struggles, and I think that by giving them any kind of a label we are actually objectifying them. Instead of getting to know them, we tell ourselves that we already know who they and what they’re about and we move on.
The members of the church are actually way better than you think they are. This is a lesson I find myself relearning all the time. I am constantly surprised at the amount of love, resilience, and wisdom that exists in my fellow church members. I could write you a list, pages long, with the names of people who, having once thought that I knew what they were about, surprised me with their ability to bless me and love me in ways that have shown me that Mormons are really amazing and really good people. I believe that there is no other organization where people are so willing to sacrifice for others. Now, I am not familiar with every organization in existence, but if there is one where the people are as good as they are here, I want to be a part of it (or at least visit).
The only problem is that we are often shy, and assume that others either do not need or do not want what we have to offer them. Sometime this shyness even comes across as snobbery. We end up not talking to each other, not knowing each other, not helping each other, and, most sadly, not loving each other. Stepping our of your comfort zone and getting to know the people you go to church with will have great returns. You may not become besties with your whole relief society, but I know that someone there has something you need.
As I searched through photos to find the ones I wanted to include, I couldn’t help but feel gratitude rise to the top of my spirit. Gratitude for the many people have been so kind to me, and who have led me along, sometimes without even realizing it. I also want to give a shout out to my non-member parents who have supposed me throughout my whole life, and specifically have supported me in the church. They threw me a party when I was baptized, outfitted me for my mission, supported my crazy plan to move to brand new state and pursue teaching seminary, and they have done all of this without ever raising a word of criticism of the Church or of my activity in it. And, surely, if there is one person who has taught me about faith, it has been my mother. And if there is one person who has shown me what God is like, it is my father.
Here’s to ten more years. God bless anyone who is reading this.
God is real. 🙂