I was talking to my sister the other day and she mentioned something about how we used to play games on the balcony in our slips. I’d forgotten that. Hadn’t thought about it in probably 40 years. What she was referring to is the fact that, on warm Sunday afternoons, we used to go out on the balcony of our house to play wearing nothing but little white slips, having escaped from our dresses.
It was an attempt to beat the system.
See, we weren’t allowed to wear pants on Sunday. We weren’t allowed to play outside, either. TV was also banned for the duration of the Sabbath. And on Fast Sunday, we did the full 24 hours while a beautiful bakery cake gloated on the kitchen counter. So Fast Sunday was actually an ironic euphemism for The Day Time Stood Still.
Consequently, I spent my entire childhood calculating how much time I had left in the week before I had to endure Sunday again. And I remember asking, on Saturday nights while having pink curlers wrestled into my hair, “But it isn’t Fast Sunday, is it?! Or Stake Conference?” Two other words that struck nearly equal fear in my heart.
So I grew up hating Sunday, and dreading it all week. This feeling has persisted into adulthood. My dad recently confided to me that he’s never liked Sunday much either. He said, “The problem with old age is that time is passing so fast now, it seems there’s nothing at all between one Sunday and the next. It’s just Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.” Yikes.
So what I’d like to ask him is why they made Sunday so gosh-darn dread worthy, when we were growing up…what purpose did that serve? And if he had it to do over again, would he do it the same way?
I understand the idea of wanting to set the Sabbath day apart from the others. I understand wanting things to be different; thoughts, feelings and actions to be more reverent. I understand the concept of worship. I understand rest. I understand setting aside a day to turn your mind to spiritual things.
But for me, gritting my teeth and getting through something is not conducive to spiritual thinking. Feeling good is. Feeling thankful for my gifts is. Feeling a love for my life and all the beautiful things in it is. And right now, that’s more likely to happen for me in other places than when I’m sitting in my ward building.
For instance, I’ve gone for a Sunday morning run for years. I call them “praise runs.” They are often glorious, and I find myself with tears streaming down my cheeks pretty regularly. I know a lot of Mormons wouldn’t approve of my Sunday running. But I come to all those good feelings I crave that way, whereas I’ve otherwise found my Sundays to be peculiarly stripped of those emotions.
Our Church services, as presently constituted, don’t do much to help me either. Three hours is a long time to spend in a church building devoid of anything to entertain or inspire the eye and therefore lift the mind. On Sunday, I wouldn’t mind a little time in the Celestial Room. Or wrapped in the awe of a jaw-dropping cathedral.
Sacred music can have a profound impact on me, but I find little in our regular uses of it to excite or stir those feelings. A really good ward choir is a hard thing to come by in today’s church. And if they are singing, it’s likely to be something thrown together from the hymnbook. Special musical numbers are few and far between. Wards struggle to have enough competent organists. The folks in the pews struggle to muster the desire to sing at all. The whole thing is sometimes a mumble and a slog, bearing little resemblance to the grand hymn of praise that I so desperately want to hear when we come together to worship and celebrate the Sabbath.
I struggle with the state of our church music more than perhaps any other thing. We used to have hymn practice. Music time in Sunday school was my favorite thing about church. It’s now so long gone, you have to be at least my age to remember it ever existed. But it was a glorious thing, in the ward of my youth. I want that back. It had real value for my spiritual well-being. Infinitely more value than another re-hashed Conference talk will ever have.
Even the best Conference talks don’t need to be drilled over and over again. We have a diversity of lives and minds right in our own wards who can come up with interesting explorations of gospel topics that are applicable right in our very neighborhoods, wherever we may be. I love to hear what the general authorities have to say at Conference. I hear their inspired suggestions for applying gospel principles to our lives. The rest of the time, I’d like to re-read those words as needed, but hear how the saints around me are coping with life while attempting to follow Jesus right in Arizona. The official information is all at my fingertips 24 hours a day, no matter where I am. I don’t have to carry around a copy of the Ensign with me. I don’t even have to subscribe to the Ensign. So enough with the never-ending General Conference reprise.
Give me something I can use.
Give me something that feeds my spirit. I want to know what the person next to me is really thinking. I want to know the ways we are the same. I want to understand their specific struggles. I want them to understand me. I want to raise our voices in praise together for a few minutes, in a hymn that is big enough to hold all of us regardless of where we stand in our individual faith, or even just our desire for it, if we’re standing at ground zero. I want to bask in our collective Mormonness through our shared song. That would leave my heart expanded, and my spirit wanting more.
I don’t often bask in Gospel Doctrine class.
Now I know, some of you are probably thinking that I get as much from my Sunday meetings as I’m willing to put into them. You may have a point, although I’m going to throw that back at you as a prime example of victim blaming. Sure. Go ahead and make me feel bad for the ways in which my needs are not being met. Go ahead and tell me that if I had more faith, the right kind of faith, I wouldn’t be riddled with aching spiritual needs. Tell me that my lifelong problems with Sundays have all been my fault. Go ahead. I can take it.
But now listen to me. Because I’m telling you that I need something different. I’m qualified to speak about my own needs. I’m saying that I shouldn’t dread church. That my religion should make me feel good, and feel alive, and like myself better, and give me a positive sense of my place in the universe and its grand scheme. It should buoy me up. It should energize me and send me out to meet the challenges in my life feeling like my faith has got my back. It should teach me the ways in which I am exactly enough, while still helping me want to be more. It should increase my capacity to love by immersing me in it. If your Sunday church experience is doing that, I’m happy for you. It’s not doing it for me, even though I truly love my ward.
I don’t believe it’s meant to be hard. You might say, “If it weren’t hard, everyone could do it. Straight gate, narrow way. ” You’re right. But I thought the point was that Heavenly Father wanted us all to succeed. And to feel joy while we do.
It all reminds me of Elder Holland’s talk a few Conferences ago in which he spoke sarcastically of the feel-good God and the pats on the bottom and the picking marigolds. That description caused me pain, and I’ve decided the reason it did, after having many months to analyze it, is that I want desperately to feel good. I’ve been taught that God wants that for me too. I just don’t feel it in our services. I don’t feel it in phrases like obedience with exactness, in handbooks that make decisions, in standards that want us to dress the same and think the same and act the same. I don’t feel it in tired lessons that do little to enlarge my intellect or expand my spiritual horizons. I don’t feel it when I’m hesitant to raise my hand and disagree. I don’t feel it when I feel guilt and shame around doubts or troubling questions. These needs sit directly on my heart, right at the center of my spiritual well-being.
And I have a real problem finding a desire to share our glad message when our message is not making me glad. Here I’m going to come right out and say that I sometimes think, “Why would I want to subject my neighbors to this? They’re pretty happy.”
I want to love Church. I want Sunday to be my favorite day, for once in my life. I’ve been taught that men are that they might have joy. I don’t think that’s wrong. But in this part of my life, it’s become increasingly hard. And as an adult, my happiness requires more than being able to wear pants and play outside. I changed those policies for myself years ago, as soon as I realized they weren’t serving me well.
I don’t believe our Sunday worship should feel like an endurance test. The other parts of our lives are hard enough. Sunday should feel like relief. Remember that song lyric, “Easy like Sunday morning?” Yeah, I know they weren’t talking about church.
But I think they were on to something.