I sat doubled over in the temple dressing room stall sobbing quietly but uncontrollably, when suddenly I heard a frail voice wavering closer, “Sister Atkinson? … Sister Atkinson?” Quickly I swept my dress up and pulled my feet under me on my tiny perch, holding my breath and willing my shaking body not to give me away. She passed very slowly, still calling tenderly, waiting for me to give in and meet her halfway in the hallway. I held fast in my hiding place, tears flowing freely in my blissful seclusion.
Minutes before, I had been sitting across from the Temple Matron in her office discussing why my volunteering to serve as an excursion temple worker was being refused. We lived six hours from the Dallas Temple, so our stake took regular trips with a Greyhound bus full of eager patrons. I was nearly always on it. To adequately handle the work that needed to be done on these excursions, the temple had begun calling temporary workers to serve on these trips.
As a mother with seven young children at home, I knew that I would not have the privilege of serving as an ordinance worker for nearly two decades (because the church has a policy of not allowing women with children under 18 to serve as temple workers.) This new excursion position seemed to offer the possibility that I might be allowed to do the work for which I yearned most now. Surely there would be no reason to exclude young mothers from serving as excursion workers when they would be on the trip as patrons anyway.
Alas, the Matron looked at me with sad eyes and closed the door on my last hope. The policy of young mothers not serving as ordinance workers extended also to the excursion workers. I was heartbroken in a way that I’m sure is not entirely sensible to anyone else, but I will try to explain.
The fact was, the Lord didn’t want me, not to do anything eternally important, anyway. I perpetually served as an auxiliary counselor because my husband was in the bishopric. My name was put forward then dismissed (the bishop freely told me) for a number of callings, including seminary teacher (another that it broke my heart to not receive), because I had my hands full. My hands were full with children arriving regularly in 18 month intervals, trying to be a supportive bishopric wife, and dealing with a home life that was not what it should have been given my husband’s calling. My hands were full, for sure, and what I was tasked with holding was sucking the life out of me. To top it off, the Lord felt that all I was useful for was to wipe noses and bottoms and endlessly feed people. I could do so much more than that, but he didn’t want it – not from me.
I’ve spent a significant amount of my life trying to figure out how God feels about women. Most of my understanding has come in the quiet care of people close to me. When my husband was released and subsequently became completely inactive in church, leaders had no problem issuing me callings to lead (now freed from the policy of only one calling-strapped spouse per household), so I’ve spent a lot of time since balancing leading and caring for the home front. And I’m beginning to get it.
Today I taught the chapters in 3 Nephi in which the voice of God spoke to those who survived the earth-eruptions of our Savior’s mortal death. The atonement is a unique juxtaposition of at once the most administratively crucial and simultaneously the most intimate experience possible. If we consider doing the most good for the most people, the atonement is the superlative example, but it is equally personal in a profoundly guttural and base way. There is no way to describe, I would imagine, how far below all humankind the Savior descended in those hours.
Having just endured that soul-draining intimacy with the whole of humanity, yet having also accomplished the most important event in all of creation, the Savior might have been tempted to go find a throne somewhere and gather his wits in blissful solitude. He might have been distracted by the explosion of praise and gratitude that must have burst across the heavens for having served so perfectly, so needfully, so importantly.
Instead, he went immediately to the people who had picked their way through the darkness to the temple, and he reached for them through their suffering. He explained their situation, invited them to shift their focus to more personal worship, then bared the yearnings of his soul for the creation. As the tumult faded and they were able to understand how to hear, he was able to reveal himself to them. And when he did, before he sermonized on anything, he stood for hours as they came to him one by one to touch him, to feel through their relationship with him, seeing him as personal Savior instead of distant heavenly administrator.
In the years that have unfolded since my morning in that temple dressing room, I’ve come to appreciate with a soulful assurance that God cares most about the details surrounding his children, and that what truly heals, what truly makes a difference, is profoundly personal. It’s a bitter pill to swallow that wiping noses and bottoms and endlessly feeding people is what he really wants from us, if we would rather do something else. Something more romantic, something more visible, something with a tangible feel of obvious service seems infinitely more appealing. But the fact is, to the person with a runny nose or a messy bum or a hungry stomach, nobody else matters.
In his own life he repeatedly taught that the most important service was between individuals, and that if we would lead we must learn to minister as a servant: to those with metaphorical runny noses and messy bums. I’ve taught that principle for nearly three decades, but I still need reminded occasionally that it’s better to save one person than to impress a multitude. Sometimes I still strain against policies designed to protect the most vulnerable among us when they inconvenience me.
I’m not even going to address those who criticize the church because there aren’t enough women speaking in conference or running programs for their taste. My heart is tender instead for people who want to do more because they love God and who feel dismissed and sent back to wipe noses and bottoms and endlessly feed people. Like the hours in the Garden, that will be the work that really makes a difference. And even if we say in our own tiredness, “Let this cup pass from me,” he knows our service-minded hearts, and honors our “nevertheless, thy will be done.”
Cecile Pelous chose to descend below to serve, to serve personally in a quiet, unheralded corner of the globe. She seems to have gone where there was need, not where she preferred to serve. Her story is the perfect foil for my sobbing on my lonely perch all those years ago, and you will instantly love her. In a thousand ways, she is the epitome of the Savior’s counsel that we not seek to be ranked against one another, letting worldly affectations of equality sully our discipleship.
For a Father who loves his children, the most meaningful gift he could give them is someone who will descend below all to serve them. If that is the work to which you are called, whether it includes runny noses or quiet corners of the kingdom, whether it is in Paris or Nepal or a small house in a subdivision, know that your call perfectly illustrates just how much God needs you. Only the world measures how much we’re needed by contorting the church into a corporation and then measuring the number of executive officers. The real power is personal, and all of us are equal to that opportunity. After all, the plan is not a business, but a family, and the home front is everything.
- Have you ever felt dismissed by the Lord, or tested as Cecile was by Mother Teresa?
- How have you found peace with the work that is so desperately needed of you?
- What do you do to balance the very natural desire for recognition of your worth with the need to be humble and self-sacrificing?
Cross-posted at Real Intent