Thursday, May 21, 2015

Burn and Refill

I remember the first time I got the wind knocked out of me. I was chasing my favorite childhood dog, Buddy, at my dad's house. He was bolting along the familiar footpath that led from the barn to the house, one that I had run up and down several times. But this time, as I picked up speed, there was a pine cone in my path that I didn't see. My right foot hit it and I went down hard, belly first, onto the dirt path. I started to panic a little as I struggled to catch my breath and make my way slowly back to the house. I held my hands on my stomach and tried over and over again to suck in air, but couldn't seem to get it into my lungs. Looking back, the scariest part of this whole experience was the surprise of not being able to breathe; being robbed of something that was always there.

(Buddy and I, a very long time ago...)

I have lately felt that struggle for air again, in a much different way. I feel that I have once again been robbed of something that usually comes with ease to me. Church. Sunday worship. This is something I've wanted to write about for a while now, but I've felt inadequate. I've tripped and lost my balance, my breath, my confidence, and my grasp of something that has never challenged me this way before.

I never expected to NOT want to go to church. I love church. I am very active in my faith; I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have a strong testimony that our Church is led by a true prophet, twelve beloved apostles, and that the Book of Mormon is another testament of Jesus Christ. On top of that, I know it's important to create good habits for my children. I've always tried to teach them about why we partake of the Sacrament every week, keep the Sabbath day holy, and participate in all of our meetings.

I've done all this, with surety. Until these last few months, when I started to get really....tired. And mad. I noticed that my oldest daughter and I only fight about her clothes on Sunday. I feel the most stress, impatience, and frustration on Sunday. We all have to look decent. There's tights involved. There's a deadline.

As I noticed my Sundays spiraling out of control, I rolled up my sleeves. I started packing our church bag with snacks the night before; I read blogs written by other mothers with lots of small children who sit alone on the pew, and I took notes. I wrote down a new set of rules and reviewed them in fine detail with my children, discussing consequences. I chucked all crayons and bought Boogie Boards that could ONLY be used during Sacrament meeting, thinking this might help keep wiggly bodies more still and reverent.
(Reading some of these now make me laugh.)
And this did help. But overall, I was still just one person asking five very little people to sit still in a quiet reverent place, for one hour and fifteen minutes. And naturally that doesn't work out every time. 

And what I really feel bad about deep down is the fact that it's not my kids, really.  It's me. I expect them to be difficult. What I don't expect is for me to feel empty and alone as I am sitting on that pew, covered in my beautiful children. I don't expect to feel angry, lost, invisible, and embarrassed that I don't have control over--well, anything. These have been the hardest feelings for me to fight with every week.

Some of it's funny. Like when Charlotte, my six year old, gets mad at me for telling her to whisper and starts to slowly remove her clothes, something she knows will really piss me off. Or the time I wouldn't let her have a snack she wanted and she literally ripped a huge hole in her tights while glaring at me. Or the few months that I put Edison in a monkey leash so I could catch his tail as soon as he took off for the front of the chapel. And the time when the entire congregation hushed for a prayer and Edison yelled out, "Meaner Butt!" to his sister. These make me giggle cause I know I'll love writing about it later.

(Nailed it.)

But a lot of it isn't funny. Like the Sunday we were all dressed and had minutes to wrap it up and my oldest yelled at me for something small. And it hit a chord. Because I was trying so hard. And then everyone started fighting and the fire grew bigger until I told everyone to change back into their play clothes and I climbed back into my bed.  This would be the first time I would not go to church on purpose, without a good reason. I sat there feeling so guilty and so mad that I finally turned on Mormon Messages and bawled my eyes out. I was surprised in that moment that I didn't feel guilt anymore. I just felt love from my Heavenly Father. It was an incredible thing to know that He didn't blame me or look down on me. He just loved me. So I put my dress back on, and re-dressed every child, and we went to church. Not just because it's a commandment or a duty. I did it because I love my Heavenly Father and I wanted to show Him that love, in action.

(Mother's Day 2015)
On the really difficult Sundays, the ones where my three year old somehow loses her underwear (true story), my two year old is sucking on a pacifier that is NOT his, and I'm in the hallway with my baby wondering why I am there, trying desperately not to glare at every innocent person that smiles at me and asks me how I am doing...I try to justify an escape plan. What about bi-monthly church attendance?  I have thought of attending a different ward, for some reason, as if that would make it easier. I have considered NOT supporting my husband anymore in his calling that takes him away from me during the morning prep time and the hardest hour at church.

Ultimately, I think, "It has nothing to do with my testimony, it's just too hard to be there on time every single Sunday in this season of my life. I need a break."

A few weeks ago I attended Women's conference where I heard a talk given by Mary Kathleen Eyring. She said, referencing the Parable of the Ten Virgins, "Oil doesn't count unless you burn and refill, burn and refill." It took a lot of pondering for me to understand what she really meant. In the Doctrine and Covenants section 33:17, we are commanded;

17 Wherefore, be faithful, praying always, having your lamps trimmed and burning, and oil with you, that you may be ready at the coming of the Bridegroom.

I had always focused on the part about keeping enough oil, or testimony, in our lamps to be prepared for the coming of the Savior. But what about this "having your lamps trimmed and burning?" I learned that if you light the wick of an oil lamp it will burn for a few hours and then go out. If you immediately try to relight the wick, it will produce a much smaller flame that gives off a lot of smoke. (See this post for a beautiful example.) 

For it to produce a large and clean flame again, the blackened and carbonized portion of the wick must be trimmed back. And that is our weekly partaking of the Sacrament. Renewing our promises. Being cleansed, trimmed, and prepared for a bright new week.
So then, why not keep the lamp filled up nicely with oil, the wick trimmed and never burn it?? I guess the answer is obvious, but it was a good reminder to me. The whole purpose and point of the oil, is to give light. Without the light that our active testimonies provide, we merely sit in darkness and ultimately lose sight of our path. It is through the burning of our oil--going to our church meetings despite all odds, serving, smiling, empathizing, studying the scriptures--that we come to know Christ. Know Christ.
One Sunday as I was walking the halls with my Jane, I crossed paths with a new mother and her baby of eight months or so. She started asking me questions about baby sleep schedules and as I shared with her what had worked for me and commiserated with her a bit, I saw that she was struggling to hold back tears. She was frustrated, overwhelmed, and feeling alone and lost as a new mother with a baby who never slept! There we were, two "burnt out" people, giving light to each other. She reminded me of how much I've learned as a mother in the last eight years, and that despite my current feelings of inadequacy, I still had much to offer.  I shed a little light on her burden and mostly just repeated over and over, "You're not alone. I've been there."

Victor Frankel said, "That which is to give light must endure burning." We burn and refill, burn and refill, and it's hard and uncomfortable and sometimes seemingly pointless. Until we realize that others are relying on our light. Our children, our spouses, extended family, friends, and sometimes complete strangers. 

From the hymn, "Let the Lower Lights Be Burning"

Trim your feeble lamp, my brother;

Some poor sailor, tempest-tossed,
Trying now to make the harbor,
In the darkness may be lost.

Let the lower lights be burning;

Send a gleam across the wave.
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.

I won't stop going to church with my five little ones. Be it late or on time, calm or stressed, happy or ornery, I will be present. I will trim back the wick. I will burn and refill, drop by drop. Because I know that the light from my "feeble lamp" is critical to at least seven people, (myself included).

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