Renovating My Faith

house renovations

My husband’s cousin lives in a gorgeous, old house – it was built around 1885, and was one of the first homes built in that area. Their family bought the home over twenty years ago as young parents and have lived there ever since. Sure, there have been some quirks – some major, some minor – but that’s inevitable when your house is over a century old. For example, the foundation was comprised of large, stacked stones and rough-cut timbers dug only two feet into the ground, and the walls were a mixture of dried adobe mud bricks, fired clay bricks, and plaster. The pipes were cast iron and rusting out, and the sewer line kept breaking. There were some aesthetic annoyances as well: having been “updated” in the 60’s and 70’s, the walls had green avocado paneling, with matching avocado-stained cabinets, and an olive green stove. There was an abundance of outdated wallpaper throughout the house. But there were also some really lovely things about the old pioneer home: 11-foot ceilings in most rooms, intricately-detailed woodwork and trim around the doors and windows, and turn-of-the-century light fixtures that were installed in the house around 1905 (when electricity was first made available in the area). And after 23 years in this house, it had become their family home – they could point out where their kids had learned to read, where they gathered for family activities, and where their child fell and ended up needing stitches.  However, in the last couple of years, they found themselves at a crossroads.  Some of the structural issues in the home were so major that they needed to make a big decision.

Do they renovate their home? Buy a new (to them) home? Or build a new home?

They’ve decided to renovate, and the word “renovate” is actually a complete understatement. They’ve had to rip their house down to the studs, remove most of the walls, and completely replace the foundation. Hoping to have more room, they dug out a basement underneath the still-standing house. All of the plumbing, duct work, sewer lines, and electrical work had to be dug out and replaced. They basically had to break everything down to the bare minimum, decide what was worth keeping and what needed to be replaced (or removed), and then build the entire thing back up again. They added things along the way, and changed a couple of things, but ultimately fought really hard to maintain the original character and shape of the house.

Watching this year-long project unfold (via Facebook updates) has been alternately baffling and awe-inspiring. Why on earth would you take on such a big project?? Is it really worth the time, energy, and resources that you put into it? Was the old house that bad? Would a new house have been that bad? Yet I found myself inspired by how well they were getting to know their house – they know every nook and cranny, every pipe, every wall. They know which walls are still original and which had to be replaced. I admit turning green with envy when they found a copy of the Saturday Evening Post from 1920 (in great condition) under one of their floors. And the balance has shifted from me being less baffled to more awestruck as they’ve come closer and closer to completing their project. It’s turning out to be a gorgeous house, with all of the beauty and history of the original 1885 house, but with the structural integrity and functionality of a 2014 house.

I can’t help but see similarities between this home renovation and the continual “faith renovation” I’ve been doing over the past several years. I feel like “faith renovation” or “faith reconstruction” is more apt for me than “faith crisis” or “faith transition” – I don’t feel like I’m in crisis, and I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere. I was born and raised in the Mormon church. I have been active my entire life. There is so much that I love about my faith – I love the rich theology, the pioneer stories, the hymns, the concept of a Mother in Heaven, and the idea that we are Gods and Goddesses in embryo. But there have been things that I’ve discovered throughout the years that are huge problems for my Mormonism, and they have threatened to collapse my entire faith. So over the last 5+ years, I’ve been gradually stripping my Mormonism down, deciding what is worth keeping, what needs to be replaced (or removed), and then building the entire thing back up again.

Much like renovating a house, it’s been soul-breaking, tear-filled, exhausting work. Ripping out the stacked-stone-and-timber patriarchal foundation has taken forever. Do I believe in patriarchy as an eternal system? What about an earthly one? How does God feel about patriarchy? Is it possible that patriarchy is really God’s law? And the polygamy wallpaper that’s all over the house – what do I do about that? Do I claim it? Is it an eternal law? An inspired principle at times? A mistake? Heavenly Mother, why did you only ever get a closet without a real door? Can I give you a bigger space in my newly built faith? How do I even do that? Where do I add on? What pieces do I let stay? How do I reconstruct my faith in a way that still looks and feels Mormon, the same way you would renovate a Tudor home and keep its unique Tudor style?

There have been times when I’ve stood back and wondered whether I should just move. I could build a house somewhere else, something newer and without all the problems that come with the original home. I’ve had friends who have said things akin to, “This is nothing but a enormous money pit – it’s not worth it” and “Why not just move into something newer and nicer?” And I’ll admit – there are other houses out there that look really nice. I’m sure that I would get rid of a lot of the headaches by moving into a different house. But I’m not sure it would be home. I’ve lived in this Mormon house my whole life. I feel like I can see that place where I learned to ride my bike, and the hearth where my Grandma would sit on Christmas morning as she watched us open our gifts. I can see my own kids running up and down the stairs, gleefully tearing through the halls and putting their own wear and tear into it. And when it comes down to it, I fundamentally believe that this Mormon house is my home, and I need to keep it as my home.

I’m grateful that I feel like renovation is even an option for me – if I had endured abuse in this house, I would be much more likely to walk away. I know that for many people, doing this kind of renovation requires more energy and resources than they’re willing to devote, and for others, there’s no desire whatsoever to reconstruct a house that hasn’t met their needs. But for me, it’s a house that I love deeply, and a faith that I want to keep. So I’m willing to put in the blood, sweat, and tears to make it a structurally sound and safe place for me.

So I’ve been ripping out that patriarchal foundation and replacing it with a lot more emphasis on Jesus. The polygamy wallpaper is long gone – replaced with a fresh coat of paint. I’ve added onto my home and tried to make a bigger space for Heavenly Mother. I’m putting in big, bright windows so that I can see the other faiths out there, and be edified by them. I’m keeping the pioneer window trim – there are few things that inspire me more than a good pioneer story, whether it be the story of the pioneers crossing the US plains in the 1800’s, the pioneers escaping from Turkey to Syria in 1921, or any other story of conviction combined with great sacrifice.

I am nowhere near done with my exhausting faith renovation. Like home renovations, it seems to be taking twice as long (and costing twice as much) as I had initially anticipated. But it’s no longer at the bare bones stage that it once was; the roof is on, the walls are up, and I’m feeling pretty secure in my new home. Some of the rooms might be missing paint or finishing touches (and some others might be missing a whole lot more), but I’m ok with it. I’m going to live here, and keep tweaking the house as I go forward. I’ve come to realize that while the major work has been done, there will be more work going forward – new problems will spring up, and I might even rediscover aspects of the old house that I love. I have come to realize that part of being anxiously engaged with our faith is our willingness to do this kind of soul-filled work.

Towards the end of their renovation, my husband’s cousin and her family poured all new sidewalks and a new driveway, and in one of the concrete panels, they stenciled their family name. I feel like I have done the same with my faith. I feel fortified and invigorated in a way that I haven’t before. This is my Mormonism. And while some might balk at it, questioning from the street whether my renovated home is “Mormon enough,” I feel a deeper connection to God and my people than I ever have before. There is more structural integrity to my faith than there ever has been, and for that alone, my faith renovation has been – and continues to be – completely worth it.

Liz

Liz is a reader, writer, wife, mother, gardener, social worker, story collector, cookie-maker, and hug-giver.

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23 Responses

  1. Latter-day Feminist says:

    Great post. I like the analogy you made here. I really want to see the pictures of the renovated house! Can you post more pics? Or link to pictures elsewhere?

    • Liz says:

      Thanks! There aren’t any public pictures right now, but they were talking about putting pictures on a blog at some point. If they’re ever posted, I’ll comment with a link!

  2. Anarene Holt Yim says:

    I love love love everything about your analogy. Thanks so much. I’m going to be thinking on this for quite a while.

  3. Melissa DM says:

    Liz, this is a treasure.

  4. Suzanne says:

    This analogy works so well! You describe just what I have been in the process of doing. I too can’t walk away yet rebuilding my faith to concur with my own conscience has been life saving for me. Thank you for a wonderful post.

  5. Victoria says:

    Simply fantastic on many levels. Outstanding.

  6. Jenny says:

    I love this analogy as well. Having lived in a house that we’ve been fixing up for five years now, I can really relate. I love the picture you create of large windows that allow you to see other faiths and a fresh coat of paint to replace polygamy. It’s so rewarding to work hard to change a physical space into something more energizing and welcoming, so I love the idea of faith reconstruction in this way.

  7. Ziff says:

    Great analogy and great post! LOL at polygamy wallpaper. For a while it was all the rage. People said you had to have it. But then they painted over it and claimed it was never there at all. I know it’s still lurking there, though. You can still see the pattern underneath the paint. I think you’re wise to just rip it out. 🙂

  8. Andrea says:

    This renovation process really is exhausting. But I hope it’s worth it. I think it will be. There is so much to be said for having a community of faith. And I want to stay in the community I’ve been in, I just have to figure out how to have my voice and feel at home. So the renovation continues.

  9. Carrie says:

    This was such a perfect analogy! I hope to get where you are some day. My question is, how did you get there? How did you do all this soul shattering hard work? I am at the point where everything is a mess and I have no idea how to move forward.

    • Liz says:

      I don’t know that I have a good answer! For me, it was a lot of reading (and/or listening to) other people’s stories of how they’ve done it. I read a lot of blogs, listened to a lot of podcasts (Mormon Matters, in particular, was a huge help for me), and read a lot of books. I also read a lot of history – reading our feminist history was huge for me – there’s an anthology of Mormon feminist writings from the past 40 years that’s coming out this year (by Rachel Hunt, Joanna Brooks, and Hannah Wheelwright) that I think will be tremendously helpful with this. I read things like “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir” and Carol Lynn Pearson poetry, because I wanted to see how feminist & faithful could work. I also read a lot of stories of people who left, because I felt like I needed to really understand as many viewpoints as possible.

      And then I just started sorting things into a pile – this is what I believe, this is what I don’t, and this is what I’m not sure about. I wrote a lot – emails to friends, journal entries, blog posts – because that’s how I process things. And I prayed like crazy – really deep, gut-wrenching, angry prayers. And even though it felt disorganized and chaotic as I did it, now that I look back, I realize that I was doing the work – I just didn’t realize how much progress I had made until I could stand back and see the pieces starting to come together.

      But really, the best advice I can give to people is to give yourself time and permission. Time because it might take a really long time to get to any point of clarity, and permission to take a break, and/or to change paths, and/or to grieve. I never took an extended break from church (although I give myself ‘mental health’ days every so often), but I gave myself permission to if I needed to, and that was huge for me. I also gave myself permission to leave and find a new church, and again, just giving myself that option gave me some real breathing room to sort out where I do/don’t want to be. We have our whole lives to figure this out! Good luck – you have sisters here to support you in any direction you go.

      • Caroline says:

        Great advice, Liz. My process was very similar. I think the great leap was giving myself permission to reject those parts of Mormonism that I found demeaning, small, and not Jesus-like. And that ability to reject gave me the ability to embrace those ideas within Mormonism that were empowering and good.

        Love the post, Liz.

  10. Renovation is indeed hard work that takes dedication. Props to you for re-building the best you know how to.

  11. Emily U says:

    This was so good! I especially loved this paragraph:

    Much like renovating a house, it’s been soul-breaking, tear-filled, exhausting work. Ripping out the stacked-stone-and-timber patriarchal foundation has taken forever. Do I believe in patriarchy as an eternal system? What about an earthly one? How does God feel about patriarchy? Is it possible that patriarchy is really God’s law? And the polygamy wallpaper that’s all over the house – what do I do about that? Do I claim it? Is it an eternal law? An inspired principle at times? A mistake? Heavenly Mother, why did you only ever get a closet without a real door? Can I give you a bigger space in my newly built faith? How do I even do that? Where do I add on? What pieces do I let stay? How do I reconstruct my faith in a way that still looks and feels Mormon, the same way you would renovate a Tudor home and keep its unique Tudor style?

    The idea of renovating but keeping the integrity of the original resonates with me. It involves examining parts and deciding what it is about them that contributes to the original, or whether they matter at all. Good stuff, Liz.

  12. Rachel says:

    I tried to write a (long) comment yesterday, but for whatever the reason it didn’t save. Now I only have time for this: I am glad you are doing the difficult work of reconstruction. I believe that what you end up with (and live in during the process) will be beautiful and strong. I say this maybe because I am trying to do it to, and your words and description feel truer to me than the other ones as well.

    (I also started to cry when you brought up Heavenly Mother’s small, unfinished space. I want to give her ballrooms and microphones and teaching podiums.)

  13. Laurie says:

    Thank you for including the line about how hard it is for people who have experienced abuse in their “house”. As an abuse survivor, I could never figure out why I had pain and scars that others didn’t have. For me, my scars were caused by my “house”. One day my beautiful chandelier crashed on my head, on another day I realized we had a massive termite infestation when my foot went through the floor board, and on the worst day the electric system caused the fire that left me with the worst scars. As much as I wanted to, makes sense to be reluctant to step back into the “house” because, for me, it was so unsafe.

    I am still mourning the loss of what was once my beautiful home. It was the only “home” I had ever known and had been in my family for generations. It had some beautiful parts that I will always love and miss. I’m really happy for those who can renovate. I tried and tried but eventually found myself allergic. It just wasn’t healthy for me.

  14. Heather says:

    This is fabulous. I am going to share it with so many people because it really captures beautifully the tricky dance when you feel deeply about your faith but also can no longer live with some aspects. I know I will reread it to. It’s an instant classic my friend. Thank you!!!!

  15. X2 Dora says:

    What a lovely post. In the past decade or so, I’ve used the phrase “Cafeteria Mormon” when I have internal dialogues about faith. I know that this phrase has been used derogatorily by some in the past, but I have thought that it requires a certain selectivity, a sifting-through of doctrine, to determine what I really do believe. However, I like this your renovation/rebuilding analogy much better. This method is not just selecting items from a buffet, but the trialing of beliefs, and incorporation into one’s own personal Zion.

  16. Melody says:

    This is beautiful, Liz. Thanks for taking time to compose it. My lengthy response wouldn’t post. I just want to say, this is a great metaphorical neighborhood and it’s great to be working on our renovations together. Let’s all share a glass of lemonade on the porch when we’re done.

  17. Bud says:

    Great post, Liz! Loved it.

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