Guest post by Bridget J.
Bridget, who has previously rarely arrived at church on time, now gets there 10 minutes early so she can broadcast sacrament meeting over Zoom.
I didn’t embark on my faith journey on purpose. It never even occurred to me that I needed to go anywhere. I thought I’d already built my spiritual foundation.
As a child, I had absolute trust in my parents and the church. I believed in what some people might name the God of the Missing Car Keys. I prayed with faith to find whatever needed finding. In school, I prayed before I studied so that the Lord could bless me with remembrance during tests. And it worked. God answered my prayers.
I considered the blessed and happy state of those who kept the commandments of God. With sure footing, I grew in love and understanding. I trusted God to take care of any issues I had. All I needed to do was be patient. I was happy. And content. Life was good.
I attributed my happiness to obedience. If there was something I could do to choose the right, I did it. Unwittingly, my faith evolved into worshiping the God of the Box-Checkers. This may be a new term to you but I think you’ll find the concept familiar. King Mosiah taught about it when he said that if you serve others, you’ll be happy.
Ooh, I helped weed a widow’s garden. Check. I also gave an elderly sister a ride home from the church activity. Check. If I don’t lie, steal, murder or commit adultery, I’ll be happy. Got those down, check!
Our contemporary church boxes include behaviors like attending church every Sunday, saying daily prayers, paying tithing and fasting every month. Check, check, check, check! Serve a mission. Check! Marry a returned missionary, get married in the temple, have a quiver full of children. Check, check and double check. Go to the temple, give to the poor, serve in the church, hold family scripture reading every night, and family prayers. So many boxes and so many checks!
I was basically crushing it. All those boxes. I earned an “A” grade in gospel faithfulness and had a front row seat in the Celestial Kingdom.
Only, I wasn’t crushing it. I wasn’t happy. Everything that was supposed to give me happiness left me feeling drained and exhausted. There were times when the disconnect was so great that instead of allowing myself to feel my emotions, I was wondering what I should be feeling. And then I would try to feel that.
Happiness is transactional, right? If I do Great Thing A then I’ll feel Positive Emotion X. Except when I checked off Box A, instead of feeling X, I felt resentful. Instead of exploring my feelings or being curious about what they meant, I swept them up and refused to deal with them.
The first time my husband and I went to marriage counseling, we had two young children. I didn’t know if our marriage would survive. It was rocky for months. We chose to move forward with faith. We chose family. And put on our happy faces and kept moving forward. In the next two years, we added two more children to our family.
One spring, I read an article in the local paper about a few exchange students that needed host families to live with. I felt impressed that we should to host the Slavic student. I initially thought my strong prompting had something to do with my desire to bring the culture of my mission into our home. While this premise was enough to get me to open our home, it wouldn’t be until later that I would discover the real reason.
At the end of August, Jovana came to live with us for the school year. At the time, I was working full time as a mother of four children aged 4, 3, 2 and 1. Plus, I was 8 months pregnant. And working part time my family’s business. Jovana immediately jumped into our family life and routines. She played with the children every day after school and always made sure to do her household chore in addition to her school work. Each evening after reading a few bedtime stories, she hung out for a bit with me and my husband.
About 3 weeks after Jovana came to live with us, our youngest son passed away. Our world stopped. And spun faster. Then tilted on it’s axis. I did not sign up for this wild ride.
Evan died on a Tuesday. We buried him on Saturday. And Monday afternoon, after the last of our visiting family flew home, I gave birth. This new rainbow baby gave me a ray of sunshine and sliver of hope in my darkest hour.
I hold a lot of anger surrounding this period of my life. I checked off all the boxes and my son died. Where was God when my husband gave Evan a healing blessing? Where was God when over 20 people in the ER were working to revive him? Why couldn’t my faith or mother’s love save him?
Jovana held our home together in the ensuing weeks when I couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed. Her presence and love played a major role into my initial healing and deep grief. We bonded in adversity. I believe she came into our lives when she did as a blessing from God. An answer to future prayers I had yet to ask.
Through grief, my capacity to hold love has increased. Without the intense pain, I wouldn’t have felt the love. My favorite scripture at that time was one where Nephi stated that he doesn’t know the meaning of all things but he knows that God loves his children.
I didn’t understand why Evan died. Nevertheless, I knew God loved me.
A few years later we traveled to the Balkans for Jovana’s sister’s wedding. Her family welcomed us into their home to be a part of their celebrations as if we were one of them.
There was so much love, it left me feeling unsettled. Erroneously, I’ve believed all my life that the strongest families on the planet are found within my own religion. And yet there I was, feeling love and experiencing a connection stronger than any other family I’d ever known.
I don’t want to pretend that Jovana’s family all have rosy lives without challenges. They’re real just like the rest of us. It’s just that the spirit of love and inclusion they showed not only me, as an outsider, but also for their family members touched my soul. There was no judgement over anyone’s choices. They loved each person’s faults as much as their positive traits. They trust each family member to live their best life, even if they make choices that they wouldn’t make themselves. They aren’t checking off boxes for family loyalty. They just love. And I want to be just like them.
A few years ago, my husband left the church. The first Sunday I brought my children to church without him was hard. I wanted to cry. I felt the loss of what I thought we once were to my core. I felt like crying in the chapel every Sunday for months especially when someone would ask me where he was. Over the next several months, half of our children also stopped going.
My husband leaving our shared religion exposed cracks in our marriage that we’d been ignoring for years. It’s hard to address those issues with love and without judgement. We went to marriage counseling again to see if we could break the unhelpful communication cycles we get into.
This is where I’m not sure how well I’m handling my mixed faith family situation. I can say that the pain is gone and I can attend church without tears. As a former box checker, my faith is maturing somewhat. I no longer find peace in my previous black and white thinking. I find rigidity to be overly divisive and contentious. I need to let go and trust that each member of my family is making the best decisions that they can for themselves. We don’t all have to make the same choices to feel love or belonging in our family.
My faith has become more nuanced as I learn to listen to my heart and analyze my beliefs. I’ve dropped the boxes. Even the cultural boxes like thinking that I should wear a dress to church on Sundays. It took a lot of effort to drop that one. My New Year’s Resolution in 2019 was to wear pants to church every week. I calculated that I’ve worn a dress to church approximately 2000 times in my life. Wearing pants for 50 Sundays shouldn’t be that big of a deal. But it was. It was so uncomfortable for me in the beginning. Forget how others may have judged me. I was judging me.
I successfully accomplished my pants goal. Though, it turns out that 2019 was a slippery slope since 2020 brought about Covid and Zoom. Then a lot of us wore pajamas to church. Now that we’re back in person, I allow myself to choose each week whether I want to wear pants or a skirt without pressure from a cultural tradition.
I used to believe in a literal Restoration of the gospel. Now I’m not so sure. At this point in my faith journey, I’m content with not knowing. I don’t think the question really matters. It has nothing to do with how I show up for my family, ward or community. I believe there’s a place for me at church as a doubter and questioner. While my faith has lost its certainty, it’s presently enough for me to associate with the Saints because they’re my people.
These days, I have more questions than answers. What if we’re wrong about faith? There are billions of people on this planet who believe differently than we do. Isn’t it enough to be happy in the strong community that we’ve built on love and inclusion? Do we have to be right, too? What if the Restoration wasn’t about religion? What if it’s about restoring our relationship to the Divine and uncovering the divine within each of us?
What if the childhood faith we once held and lost is what needs restoring? What if the rigorous box checking we learned in our youth eats away at our humanity? Could our judgements of others destroy our ability to trust and love? Is our own self-righteousness getting in the way of our happiness? Do we care more about boxes than the virtues they represent? What if everything we’re looking for can be found in the God of Love?
This post is part of the series, Reconstructing Faith. Find more from this series here.