In a church with a lay ministry, every Sunday is an adventure. Like that famed box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get. Usually the sermons are repetitions of General Conference addresses or recaps of scripture stories. Occasionally you get a politically or socially charged topic or a speaker who goes completely off the “safe” script and delves into life details that most would keep private. To those who, like me, may have tender feelings close to the surface, church attendance can be more of a spiritual minefield that a chocolate tasting.
Yesterday, I sat in the pew with my children as we usually do. We sang the hymns, listened to the prayers, took the bread and water. I tried to help them sit quietly while trying to listen to the speakers myself. Our ward had a full program with three youth speakers and two adults. Things went smoothly and predictably through talks of scripture heroes and a sermon on agency. When the last speaker got up, he had only 10 minutes left and hurriedly worked to condense his planned talk, a rendition of a General Conference talk, “Choose the Light.”
One of the challenges we face, said the speaker, was that of living in the information age where so much is available on the internet. Deciding what is true and uplifting can be difficult. There are those who seek to destroy faith by publishing and sharing criticisms of church policy and past and present leaders. Most of their information is false, especially the claims about how the church uses tithing funds and the claims about things Joseph Smith did. The people publishing this information hide behind the anonymity of the internet and their words are given more import than they should. But, if our faith is strong, if we pray and read our scriptures enough, we will not be overcome by the darkness.
My first reaction was to feel resentful and insulted. The implications of this brother’s words was that I don’t know what I’m talking about when I have legitimate concerns with policy, doctrine,and history or that I am willfully seeking to destroy faith. He suggested that maybe I just wasn’t praying enough or didn’t have enough faith and that I was being deceived.
He doesn’t know, I thought angrily. He doesn’t know how much I have prayed, coming close to praying without ceasing at times. I have continued to pray when the answers are slow to come. He doesn’t know the time I have spent studying, seeking to find comforting answers, only to come up empty handed. He doesn’t know how hard it is for me to come to church some Sundays when the only thing that gets me in the pew is a desperate desire to believe and a spiritual conviction of where my Heavenly Parents want be to be.
Then I looked up, through watery eyes and saw my bishop. He looked right at me and smiled with immense gentleness. Because he knows me and our family, I think he could guess how the speaker’s words were affecting me. I’m not sure what he would have said to me if we hadn’t been across the room, but he didn’t need to say anything. In his eyes and his smile, for a moment, I felt peace knowing that at least one person knew who I was and loved me just as I am.
I quickly looked away to hide a tear. I thanked God for the moment and asked him to help me to love others this way. I remembered the words of the sacrament hymn we had sung just a few minutes earlier. I thought of the sacrament prayer, and my covenant to always remember the sacrifice of my Savior. I remembered His words, in the midst of pain, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
I am so far from perfect and make countless mistakes. I am deeply humbled by and indebted to the sacrifice that cleanses me from my sins and makes me new again. I have never known the weight of injustice that our Savior experienced. I have so little to forgive. I needed strength though, help to let go of the pride that told me I was justified in offence. I needed power to turn my heart soft, allowing it to be bruised and healed and bruised again.
I looked up at the speaker and thought, you know what, he doesn’t know. His lived experience is all he knows. He doesn’t know me or the others like me. The resentment and frustration from feeling misunderstood and misrepresented in such a public forum melted away. As I remembered Jesus Christ and my covenant to try to emulate Him, I was filled with a love and gentle peace beyond my own.
A mild voice whispered to me, "This is grace. This is Christ's power to change who you are and make you like Him. It happens like this, one small step, one small change a time."