Monday, April 20, 2009

Bless the Broken Road

With the exception of 1984, when I spent a year in Dubbo, Australia as an exchange student where there was no local congregation within 35 miles and I couldn’t drive, I have been to church every year for about 49 weeks out of every 52. Roughly speaking. This means I have been to at least 2058 Sunday services and 2058 Sunday School classes–not counting youth meetings, firesides, pioneer treks, Girls Camp, and mid-week Primary sessions. I am not alone in my consistency. People in my neighborhood go to church just about every Sunday too. Regular as a five minutes slow clock, we file in, children in tow, honey nut cheerios in bags, roasts in crock pots and rolls rising in ovens (for those who know how to make dough). Every week for years, we do this, until the children grab their own fruit snacks on the way out, and it's texting that keeps some of them occupied through the service.

Every week there’s a discussion of some truth that, if actually believed and applied, would change the nature and quality of our lives. (By this I mean the undiluted, unpolluted gospel of good news, not the philosophical human ramblings infrequently mingled with scripture that can fill a room with theological smoke screens so thick it’s hard to find your way out.) Looking around at the people I worship with, myself included, it’s not apparent that we actually believe most of the stuff we hear every week. Because, when we go home, nothing’s different, nothing’s changed.

I lay in bed last night thinking about what truths, if we actually applied them in their purity, would change the way we live, and teach, and interact with those around us. Here’s a few:

“Of you it is required to forgive all men.” Imagine if we could take the offense, either done to us or by us, and lay it down. Just leave it, and walk away–like Lot leaving Sodom. Instead, most of us look backwards, like his wife. We take the offense, carry it around with us like a favorite doll, wear it to shreds with our talismanic touchings. By so doing, the action takes a power and significance far beyond its natural reach, precisely because we allow it to continue in our lives. We go back. We scratch. We make it bleed again. The scar gets bigger. The divine mandate is to forgive. It is a requirement. Not an option. I don’t believe (but I am still thinking this one through) it means forgive when we are good and ready, once we had a few months or years to really soak up the injustice that has been done to us. It means now, quickly, before the offense and the accompanying resentment/disappointment/pride cankers our soul. Imagine the peace such a laying down would bring, and the space and energy that would open up to be used in other ways.

“Free to choose liberty and eternal life.” One of the hardest truths to accept is that our lives are what they are because we chose them to be that way. Perhaps not as children, but certainly by the time we have reached our adult years and are into the long haul of marrying, raising children and earning a living, we live the way we have chosen to live. This means, for example, that our marriages are what we choose them to be; we have acted/inacted/reacted our way into the current state of the relationship. Some refuse to acknowledge this hard truth; instead we blame our parents, the economy, our spouse, our children, our boss, the hard luck genes that seem to befall us, or the unfriendly world that does not recognize our brilliant talents which go financially unrewarded and unappreciated. Accepting this principle as true means accepting that we, ultimately, are responsible for the state of our own lives. Perhaps we would not have chosen a particular outcome if we could have seen that “that” was the outcome, but by choosing to live a particular way, to react in particular ways, to draw lines in particular places, the accumulation of those choices leads inexorably to “that” particular place. Lucky for us, this principle is constant. No matter what our previous choices, we can still choose liberty starting now.

“Earn your bread by the sweat of your brow.” A few weeks ago, five members of our valley were sentenced to various terms in federal prison. Their crime: they manipulated a peaking real estate market by recruiting straw buyers to buy and flip high-end properties. A mortgage company with connections to lenders, a real estate agent with access to the MLS, an appraisal company, and a title company joined forces in a conspiracy that devastated an entire neighborhood, causing property values to spike, tax evaluations to double, homes to be left empty after the income stream dried up and mortgage payments couldn’t be made on homes that were mortgaged at twice their actual value. I do believe that those individuals had also been to about 2,058 worship services. So, what didn’t sink in about earning a living through one’s industry, about the need to actually invest energy and labor in a somewhat proportionate, legal manner in order to earn a living?

“Bring to pass much righteousness of their own free will and choice.” Can it really be that my Christian commitment is fulfilled by ten percent (gross or net, depending), three hours on Sunday, one lesson a month, and three visits. Surely not.

"The earth is full and to spare," meaning there is enough, there’s always enough. Enough time, enough talents, enough money, enough food, enough influence, enough compassion, enough resources to do what needs to be done. There is no need to hoard, to pinch, to hold back just in case.

Remember the scene when the Elisha looks out over a valley filled with opposing armies. He says, “Fear not, they that be with us are more than they that be with them.” Despite this truth, we color the world dark. I don’t know how many meetings I’ve sat through where the tenor of discussion has been the world is going to hell in a handbasket. That society is hanging by a thread, and if we’re not careful, we will be swept up in a wave of sin that will overcome the entire earth. Batten down the hatches; lock your children in the basement; and . . .

Yet, when I travel, I invariably meet goodness: a former engineer now cabbie from Turkey who drove me around San Diego, telling me about his children, his wife, his good life in this new country; a salesman on a flight from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town who witnessed to me about the prayer meeting he had attended with thousands of other South African men, and about his daily Bible study that guides his life; my high school history teacher who, twenty years after he taught me, continues on in the same classroom with the same enthusiasm and encouragement he gave me. Where I live, I am invariably surrounded by goodness and beauty: the plum trees left standing in the planting strips of a demolished Motel 6 who have burst into pink-blossomed beauty simply because it is spring (finally); the brilliant invention of the Internet that allows me, a working attorney and a mother, to draft and file documents from home and thus be available; the ladies on my indoor soccer team, all of whom are Hispanic except me (in married name only) and with whom I can hardly communicate except for the crucial “Passela, passela.” Why, when there is so much goodness, so much beauty to contemplate, do we choose to look down, to look back, to look out with fear? We forget a corollary truth that if applied would color our world differently, with light: Doubt not, fear not, but be believing.

And others: A soft answer turneth away wrath. Take my yoke upon you that your burdens may be light. Judge not that ye be not judged. God is love. I, the Lord, remember them no more. All are alike unto God.

In the face of such potentially life-altering truth, week after week, year after year, I continue on, sitting two rows from the front on the left side, waving to Kevin as I come in, singing the hymns, checking my name off on the rolls. Showing up is the easy part, the public display, and, in a way, the deceptive part. It can fool me into thinking I am living the Christian life.

Sitting and listening and making pithy comments doesn’t do the actual work of changing hearts, of choosing better, of doing and becoming. Standing up and bearing solemn public testimony of restored truth and an infinite Atonement only goes so far. If we’re still hoarding linty sins in our pockets along with every slight inflicted upon us by our parents and siblings, which apparently gives us permission to perpetuate patterns and traditions of living that haven’t worked in generations, we’ve missed the point. If we’re still looking out the window at what appears to be an obviously evil world, and, filled with fear, we send our children out to do daily battle with Satan’s demons, we’re moving with our eyes shut. If we’re still fighting, bickering, sideways sniping at our husbands or wives, and certainly our children or trying to find a shortcut to earning a living, wanting instant, easy results with little effort, we’re living in a theoretical vacuum. It might be better, and a whole lot more honest, if we just stayed home.

(Title from Rascal Flatts, Bless the Broken Road)


  1. AMEN!! And once again, thank you for your incredible ability to put down in words what we've all known in our hearts for a long time. We make life so much harder than it needs to be by failing to live as we believe and by not sharing our human experience in ways that lift and enoble one another. I have always said, and still believe, "If we do not leave our Sunday services changed and motivated then there is something wrong". We can all do better to live the way we believe.

  2. Hi grandmabish: Thanks for reading. The challenge for me is that we can be so busy "living our religion" that we forget to allow the principles to sink deep into our bones. We can temple, tithe, visit, journal, and store, with the best of them, and yet we continue to fear, to argue, to withhold from our loved ones, to judge and separate. It's as if the business of it all numbs us to what we actually need in order to live--to drink deeply and often. So, I'm thinking stay home until you really need it, until the lack sets off an ache you know of no other way to fill.

  3. These things have come into focus more clearly in my own life these past few years. Trials and challenges have set me on a path of forgiveness, charity and love that I wouldn't have asked for, and probably would not have received in any other way. No one wants to learn these concepts through painful trials. I can say I am thankful for those things. I have never stayed home....but life's hard lessons have turned me more seriously to my knees and to the source of all comfort and blessings. I see people differently now......partly because people whom I love, have taken paths that led them away from gospel teachings or from the church altogether. I know where my source of strength lies and it is not home on the couch. Here again, the trials provided me with the "ache" I needed not only fulfill my callings with a new perspective, but also to be enjoying the journey and appreciating what I have. I look for ways to serve, because I see people differently
    now. Recently, have you noticed the numbers of people returning to church? In my ward they are. Maybe what you said is happening, where they are needing what they had, and are wanting to be filled. That is a good sign.

  4. On the other hand, I have other thoughts brewing about why going is good, why simply showing up puts us in a place to meet God.

    I'm thinking about muscle memory, about doing a motion so often that it becomes ingrained and then suddenly you're Rafael Furcal at short stop for the Braves and the movements you make are simply beautiful. I think that's the same with our souls. There's a reward of gracefulness and confidence that waxes strong when you put in the time.

    There always comes a time when you stop to question the motions we make, and to realize they are meant to provide us pathways to journey towards our Heavenly Father. Not all pathways are the same, but I really believe the destination is the same.

  5. Tessa--

    I just read your article on Meridian Magazine, and LOVED it. You hit on something I have been trying to be better at for the past few years. Thank you, thank you. It was beautiful. I have one quick question though--is there ANY small chance in the world that you were once a TA/Writing Teacher for an Honors History of Civilizations class WAY WAY back in 1988? You look SO familiar, and I can almost hear your voice as you talk. If so, I was one of your more mediocre students, but somehow still came away with a love of writing. Thanks. I'll check back on your comments later and see if it's all in my head or if maybe, just maybe, it could be you. :)

  6. We each have an ingrained self-concept that if and when we do awaken to the dissonance between our actions and our self-concept that we begin to rationalise what we do and self-justify.

    That's why we can break the law and still attend church, why we are convinced we are following the WoW by not drinking hot drinks but do drink caffeinated cold drinks, the gross vs net tithing debate, thing after thing.

    I try to teach my Young Women that we are spiritual beings having human experience so that they are realistic about who they are and what they do and that forgiveness, when sought is given.

  7. Holly,

    That WAS me as the TA. Great memory. What was your last name at the time? Let's see if my memory is as good. I think that was probably my very first class I ever taught at BYU.

  8. I just read most of this to my seminary class (my truly extraordinary EXTREME early morning--5:15 class!) I was trying to help them understand that the true gift of the gospel is all about how following Christ gives us MORE. He always wants us to have more... more happiness, more freedom, more love, more and richer relationships, more blessings--the list is truly endless. We are the ones who limit ourselves. When we hold on so tightly to the little we have, trying for "control" or "perfection", it makes it impossible to open our clenched fists into the cupped hands that can hold the blessings He promises "full measure, packed down and overflowing".

    Satan's ideal is to have us so limited, so addicted that we have no care for ourselves, our lives, our bodies, our families or for others--living in an ever decreasing, darkening pit of misery. The Lord's plan of love and mercy is one of ever expanding light and freedom.

    The more we can learn these principles (over, and over, and over...)the more light and freedom we gain.

    Thank you for using your beautiful gift to share your understanding with me in a way that helps my heart open up to new understanding.

    I have loved your writing since I read "Get thee behind me" in "This People" magazine, and it is still one of the most influential and life changing articles I have ever read. I am so glad I found your blog!

  9. My last name was Shipley. I was a VERY young and VERY insecure freshman. :) You can check me out now at MUCH older, and STILL insecure, but in different ways. Life is crazy, but we just keep on living it!

  10. as one of your siblings...if my baggage weighs you down get rid of it. i havnt used it in years.

    luv ya sis

    your "bigger' brother

  11. Thank you for this post. It has been on my mind for days now. For me, I don't know how to lay down the family member who has sexually abused multiple women in our family. I feel an uncontrollable anger towards this person. Can I really just lay it down? How?

  12. I don't really have all the answers. I do know, as one of those women who was sexually abused by a family member, that the only way to get passed it is to forgive--both the perpetrator and yourself and your body. I think its easier if it happens to you . . . perhaps more difficult if it happens to those you loved and you feel you failed to protect them, and then you question why God wouldn't let you know so you could stop it. (I wrote an essay about this once, Drinking Blue Milk. It was about 20 years ago, my first attempt at a personal essay, and it was the first hard truth I wrote about.)

    If you don't lay it down, it will eat you alive. And, if you are a victim, it will become your self-definition. But it can become one of your experiences to draw upon, because, after forgiveness and time, the memory doesn't hurt as much and the knowledge becomes a way to help others.

    How? Mourn with them, for them, and for yourself. For the perpetrator who had to live with that uncontrollable urge for most of his life. Be angry. Seek for understanding. Pray to see the offender as God sees him. Ask for your eyes to be opened. Be mentally strong, and don't stay in the angry place too long. Move through it. Feel it deeply, completely, screamingly, and then move through it to peace. Know that God knows your anger, your pain. That he sees it. Then offer it all up. Don't return--like a dog to its vomit. Just don't. Know that, if you are the victim, it was no reflection on your worth, or your righteousness, or your soul. Know that. If you don't, pray to know that. And share your story with a trusted heart The private shame is ten times worse than the shared experience.

  13. I would like to read "Drinking Blue Milk." Is it available archived online somewhere for free?

  14. I don't know actually. I have a copy of it on paper. I've lost all the electronic versions of my older work. I could send it to you. Or could post it somewhere. Maybe a very long post on here. Public libraries might have Dialogue. I know they have BYU Studies. If you're in Utah, I'm sure the University libraries would have Dialogue.

    Um . . . is that any help at all . . . I don't know.

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  16. Here is the reference for "Drinking Blue Milk"

    Santiago, Tessa Meyer. "Drinking Blue Milk." Dialogue 31 (1) Spring 1998: 15-22 [p. 20]

    It can be read online for free at:,9946