Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.
There have been a number of times I've wanted to write how the loss of my mother has affected my faith. But this topic is daunting to say the least. My religious tradition is a large part of my life and identity and it's something that's been drastically impacted by the events of the last couple years. My faith journey is difficult to write about because it never seems to be finished. I don't know how to tell the story of my heart - the one that continually shifts. My beliefs that were once a solid bedrock have become something very fluid, and I sense changes in them almost daily. A few months ago I was asked to speak in church - the first talk I had given since Mom's passing. And so, it seemed as good a time as any to try and articulate exactly what my faith looks like. I would apologize for the length of this post, but it is a long story - so it deserves all the space it takes to tell it.
There are a number of General Conference talks referenced in this talk. I've left links to them within the text.
Today I'll be speaking on what it means to have a living faith - one that changes with time. That is the only kind of faith I feel qualified to speak on now, because I am currently in a place where my faith looks quite unfamiliar to me. It is shifting and changing and not anything like what it used to be.
My mother was sixteen years old when I was born. She and my father divorced when I was three and life continued to be a succession of moves and marriages and divorce and dysfunction. Growing up, there was never a religion that we stuck with - we attended very few churches with any regularity. I was intensely curious about spiritual matters as a child, and I would often check out books from the religion section of the library to see if I could find the answers I was looking for. When I was eleven I tried to read the bible, but didn't get past the book of Numbers. At twelve I was baptized Lutheran and spent a little while in that church, thought I still had questions that I didn't find answers to even during my Confirmation process. Another move to another state found us church-less once again and I just resolved to try my best to be a good person; to be a Christian - whatever that might mean.
I was fourteen years old when the missionaries knocked on our door. Mom had been brought to her knees, praying for a miracle, for her life was again in complete disarray. Mormon missionaries were not the answer she was looking for and so she sent them away. She returned to her prayer only to realize what just transpired. She chased the Elders down the street, made an appointment, and we had our first discussion that very night.
I remember the moment I gained my first testimony of the restored gospel. The missionaries had just presented the Plan of Salvation and for the first time in my life I felt peace about where my life was going and what would happen after I die. I felt the Spirit testify to me that I had just heard Truth. When Elder Racey looked at me and asked what I thought about the Plan of Salvation I said, "I've never head anything like it, but it seems so familiar."
I remember the feelings I had at my baptism - the overwhelming sense that I had just embarked upon an epic journey. I felt a sort of emptiness, a strange sadness as I said goodbye to my former self. And then a might rushing wind filled me. My cheeks burned hot all that night as I greeted those who had attended my baptism. I truly felt a fire throughout my body and I realized that this choice I had made to be baptized was a real turning point in my life.
At that point I entered the phase of my life I like to call "the years of prosperity." I fit into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints like a perfect little cog. My life was centered around Young Women's activities, seminary, fulfilling callings. My family life continued to disintegrate in many painful ways, but being a part of the Church gave me the stability and safety I had always craved. I thrived with the loving support of so many kind people and the very structure inherent in the church setting. Throughout high school my mother's mental illness and addiction continued to increase in intensity, so when I graduated I high tailed it to BYU as fast as I could. I continued to fulfill callings that stretched me in new ways and my life revolved around church activity. Family heartache was always a trying part of life, but during that time I felt that every struggle had meaning. I was in a constant state of growth and development. There was purpose to my trials and I felt very connected to my faith and my God. It was during these years that I met Joe. We were married and Ellie was born to us while living in Provo, UT. We moved to New York City for work and welcomed our second daughter, Wren, at the very end of 2011.
On the evening of April 2, 2012, I received a phone call that my mother had died of an overdose. I knew immediately that it was suicide. It's hard for me to even express the feelings I experienced at that time. Crumpled to the floor in the kitchen, it literally felt as thought my world came crashing to a halt. In the hours following that phone call, my heart was wracked with the most intense grief and sorrow I ever could have imagined. In the days and weeks that followed, there were moments of clarity and tenderness and whisperings of the Spirit within my heart. Even amid my pain I felt an exquisite sense of meaning and purpose. There was intense sorrow, but there was also sacredness in the suffering.
In the months following Mom's death, however, there was nothing.
A huge, crushing nothingness.
I fell into a depression so deep that it threatened to consume me. The sudden death of my mother pulled the rug out from under me, and the floor along with it. I was free-falling into an abyss and though I flailed in every direction, I could not seem to grasp anything to slow my descent. "Where was God?" I wondered. Why did He abandon me in my time of greatest need? My prayers felt unanswered, my heart felt unhealed, and a I began to feel that my previous faith was unfounded.
I spent a long time (many months) feeling abandoned and angry. I was out of touch with my faith and utterly lost - and not for lack of trying. How I prayed to know if God was there! And yet, I felt nothing. No revelation, no calming confirmation of the Spirit; none of the things I had believed would come to me in my time of need. I always thought that if I did what God wanted, He would protect me. Not that He would keep bad things from happening, but that it wouldn't hurt so badly when the very worst thing happened. To find myself in this time of grief feeling totally alone and unsure was very upsetting to say the least.
I began to feel anxious. Do I still belong here in this church? Can I continue doing all that is required of me when I don't feel a thing? Do I fit in amongst all the believers surrounding me? I started to feel pressure within myself to get my testimony back - to arrive at the same answers I had once known. Why wasn't it coming back? What does it mean if God doesn't answer my prayers? What can I believe about this Father who seems absent when I need Him most?
Around this time we moved to Ithaca. There's nothing like birthing a baby, losing your mother, and moving to a new town all in a matter of months to throw these questions and anxieties into hyper-drive. I was not coping well. And while I learned to function in a physical sense and began the journey to finding my emotional health, my spiritual life remained a giant question mark - an empty place inside me.
In the last few months there have been moments of light. I've had small realizations and brief moments of spirituality that have helped me to remain here at church. The first of which was Elder Bowen's talk in the October 2012 General Conference. His story of the heartache of losing his son was the first time I remember any general authority really discussing what life was like before the faithful resolution of a trial. Sometimes conference talks seem to fast forward through the suffering, which gave me the impression that suffering was not an acceptable part of the process. Somehow I had internalized the belief that a faithful person experiences a trial, quickly feels the spirit comfort them, and then everything is OK. Elder Bowen's discussion of the anger, guilt, and loneliness he battled after his son's death helped me to feel less anxiety about the fact that I haven't yet reached a happy ending to my great trial.
I've also been thinking a lot about the parable of the sheep. For the first time in my life, I find myself really relating to the lost sheep. I understand now what it feels like to wander in the wilderness and not feel the love of the shepherd who searches for me. Perhaps Christ has been searching for me, but as a lost sheep, it's not possible for me to know or feel that while I wander. Along these lines, President Monson's address to the Relief Society in October of 2013 comforted me greatly when he said:
"There will be times when you will walk a path strewn with thorns and marked by struggle. There may be times when you feel detached—even isolated—from the Giver of every good gift. You worry that you walk alone. Fear replaces faith."
"My dear sisters, your Heavenly Father loves you—each of you. That love never changes... It is there for you when you are sad or happy, discouraged or hopeful. God’s love is there for you whether or not you feel you deserve love. It is simply always there."
Small and simple experiences like these helped me to feel peace about the unsettled nature of my faith. And the more acceptance I had for my situation, the more things began to improve, bit by bit. Still, this is not a linear process. There are small forward steps and backward slides. In fact, this faith journey feels more like a sideways spiral motion - I'm often revisiting the same issues from a different perspective. It's not the line upon line simple gathering of knowledge I experienced when first joining the Church.
It's not as though one day I woke up to find my prayers answered and my belief restored. It's not as though the darkness completely dispersed the day I started taking an anti-depressant. But I made a conscious choice to keep showing up to life, to keep my heart open to feeling anything good that may come and to allow myself the time to work through this difficult process, without any pressure to arrive at "the end."
My faith has been tested in the most extreme sense in recent years. At times it has felt I have no faith at all.
Yet, as I reflected on the story of my conversion and baptism for this talk, I was able to feel for the first time in a long while that Someone truly was watching over me. I know that my life is better now that it was before I was introduced to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I know Someone answered my prayers then. I remember feeling loved and guided and blessed.
And if I cannot always feel a connection to the Savior today - well then, that is when I hope for things which are not seen which are true. (Hebrews 11:1, Alma 32:21)
Today I cannot stand in testimony meeting and say that I KNOW things, not in the way that I could before. The list of things I know is very short. But there are a few things that I believe and many more that I hope for.
I know that the world is a beautiful place and I'm grateful for every day I have.
I know that we all have divinity within us.
I know that grief has made my heart tender and humbled me in ways I couldn't have guessed.
I know that charity never faileth.
I know that my life has been blessed for following the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I believe that keeping covenants brings peace to my life.
I believe that grace is a real power in my life - that I am just beginning to understand how to live with grace each day; how to truly rely on it.
I believe in prophecy and in personal revelation - that the Spirit can touch our hearts and guide us.
Oh, and the list of things I hope for - it is long indeed.
I hope to one day feel a personal relationship with Jesus Christ again - to really KNOW that He is my savior.
I hope that this church is led by living prophets, and that as a living, breathing organization it will continue to grow and change in a direction that brings all of us closer to God.
I hope there will be a day when all wrongs will be made right, when the sorrows of this world will be washed away.
Most of all, I hope that my offering of a sincere and questioning heart will be acceptable to my Heavenly Parents.
This is my current testimony, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.