An anxious faith
By Emily Larson
One thing I haven’t missed one bit about this pandemic is attending church. Our church services shut down fairly early into the pandemic, and for a while, we were simply encouraged to do services in our home. We did that a couple of times, but we fairly quickly evolved into having quiet Sundays at home, simply because it was easier to do nothing than it was to plan and carry out a Sunday meeting and lesson. Eventually, our ward moved to Zoom meetings, and we have opted not to attend, mostly because we forget, but also because we’ve come to really love our quiet Sundays without any church.
I don’t think I realized until this pandemic that Sundays could be lovely! Whenever people referred to it as a “day of rest,” I would sarcastically grumble that it’s only restful if you aren’t trying to wrangle four little kids into a pew and throw enough snacks and books at them to keep them quiet. As my kids have gotten older, and as my relationship with the church has become more complicated, attending church became a source of profound anxiety and distress. While most of it was fine, there would always be one talk, or one testimony, or one comment in Sunday School that would get under my skin. Sometimes it was a truly racist/sexist/bigoted comment, but sometimes it was something entirely faithful and benign, but would remind me of the heartache I felt around many church issues (like attending the temple). I would spend at least 3-4 hours after church processing the experience, and trying to help myself stand solid in my own truth and relationship with God, while also holding space that everybody has a different experience. I felt strongly that I could believe a certain way, and other people could believe a different way, and that’s ok, because a diversity of viewpoints and experiences is the whole point of attending church based on geographical boundaries. But in order to get to that point, I’d have to expend a lot of emotional energy unpacking and repackaging whatever happened at church that week.
I remember reading a blog post on Zelophehad’s Daughters a few years ago that really stuck with me. Lynnette wrote about attending the Episcopal church, and how attending it was such an edifying experience, and she didn’t realize that attending church could be a net positive in her life. She wrote,
The thing is, without even realizing it, I’d developed a religious identity centered around angst. And part of me liked that. Part of me even believed that faith that wasn’t completely wrenching maybe wasn’t the real thing, maybe wasn’t worth pursuing. And I liked that image of myself, of the person whose faith was so real, so committed, that I wouldn’t let even the hardest aspects of the church, the things that were so difficult for me, take away my connection to it or my willingness to stick with it. I’d adopted a narrative about there being something extra virtuous about going to church when it’s kind of a brutal experience. I mean, anyone can go to church when it’s easy to do so, when you mostly like it. But it takes someone special, I figured, to keep going when it feels terrible. I don’t know that I ever consciously articulated this point of view to myself, but it was lurking underneath, and definitely influencing my decision to stay.
I resonated with this deeply at the time, but I feel it even more now. I told myself that it was a feature, not a bug, that going to church was so hard! It’s a measure of true discipleship to really wrestle with your faith, that the struggle and the suffering made my faith deeper and more rooted. But what I’ve come to realize is that my wrestle wasn’t always a wrestle – sometimes I was just getting punched in the face. And now what I’m trying to pick apart is how much of my church attendance is painful because it’s growth, and how much of it is painful because it’s injury. Is spiritual growth supposed to be this hard? Is it ok if I just don’t do anything on Sundays and feel edified? How much church do I need in my life?
As I’ve taken a step back during this pandemic, I’ve learned that Sundays don’t have to hurt. And it’s a scary thing to realize, because what if all of the energy I put into my angsty faith wasn’t actually virtuous? What if it’s not supposed to hurt? And can I really consider myself a spiritual or faithful person if I just watch TV with my kids and do puzzles on Sundays?
I don’t know that I appreciated how lovely our Sundays had been until I got a text from my bishop, asking to meet about a calling as our ward attempts to meet in person again soon. All of the anxiety came flooding back into my body, and I was almost paralyzed with the familiarity of feeling like I had been punched in my soul. “Oh yeah,” I thought. “I remember feeling like this.” All that anxiety, just from a text! And I realized that while some of the pain I’ve experienced really has been from growth, a lot of it really has been unhealthy and damaging. And, like Lynette, I am beginning to believe that “faith could still be meaningful and worthwhile and genuine without quite so much angst and internal conflict. That there might be a different way of being religious, and that gritting your teeth and continuing to attend services that regularly beat you down isn’t necessarily virtuous, or admirable, or even wise.”
Has your relationship with the church changed because of the pandemic? If so, how?