I drove only four hours that day, and when I arrived at my brother Cory’s house, I forgot about life for an hour or three. I was relieved. The past two weeks were such an emotional, spiritual, and physical drain; I needed my brother so I could take a breath of fresh relief.
I knelt on the back of the couch and leaned with my elbows on the kitchen island. Cory stood on the other side drinking a glass of Dr. Pepper.
“Church is tomorrow. Charisse, now Sister Stephens,” he said with a grin, “and I teach the twelve year-old class. Are you going to come?”
I was silent. I played with my great-grandfather’s cufflinks that rested on the counter. My hands began to shake, tears trail blazed my cheeks.
“I don’t want to. Since I was disfellowshipped, I’m not allowed to pray in class or even raise my hand and participate. The only reason I can even stand anything other than sacrament meeting is that I can make comments in class. Now I can’t. Cory, I don’t know what to do.”
He stood behind the island and looked down. “What’s your plan?”
I sighed. “My plan? I don’t know. This is all happening too fast.”
The silence was appeasing. Of all the people I knew, he was the one I could trust the most not to judge me. He walked around the island and sank on the couch.
“You’re going home. You can go to church and do the things that the bishop asks you. You can come back into full fellowship after a year. But why are you doing it?”
“Well that is what I am supposed to do. Isn’t it?”
“Well you can do that… but why? Do you believe that it is worth it? Other people live good lives and are not members of the church.”
I was abashed. “So you are telling me not to try and come into the church again and live a good life just because other people do it? Are you seriously telling me this? The whole reason I stayed on my mission and continued to teach other people was because I knew that despite my faith in it, it helped people live that better life. Even if I don’t believe in God in twenty years, I still want my family raised in this environment because of the standards that will be expected of them.”
“You don’t have to be a member of the church to live those standards though.”
Unknowingly I was twirling a small wooden dowel in my fingers and shaking. I came here for support, but instead was just tossed aside.
“So what if I don’t believe the gospel. I want to raise my family with those values. Whether it is true or not is irrelevant. This is how I want to raise my family. Why do I need to believe it to live it? No matter what the reason is, if I am a good person and try to raise my family in the gospel, God will accept it.”
“He will accept it, but people like you go to the Terrestrial Kingdom. The Terrestrial Kingdom is for the people who live the gospel for themselves, the Celestial Kingdom is for those who live the gospel for God. Sure you can live with your family in this wonderful environment, but when you die, you will be living alone, and not in glory with God.”
“If you live the gospel, you live the gospel. God cannot hold it against me.” My cold drying tears evaporated as my face flushed with heat.
Cory explained, “For eighteen months of my mission I worked and worked and worked, and nothing was working. Every time I met with my mission president I asked him what more I could do. And every time his response was the same, ‘Elder Stephens, you aren’t trusting the Lord enough.’ And every time I left frustrated because I didn’t know how to work for the Lord and do it His way. I worked even harder and we were barely teaching one lesson a month. Our nightly prayer was pleading with the Lord to help us teach more effectively, to speak Spanish more fluidly, to find people more efficiently. Nothing changed.
“Then one night as my companion and I knelt, I imagined a family we were teaching.” Cory held up his hand, his pointer finger pressed against his thumb. The whiteness of the top portion of his fingernail contrasted the blood-filled tips of his finger. “I had this much control of what they were doing right then. I realized that no matter how amazing our lessons were, and no matter how well we spoke Spanish, I had absolutely zero control whether or not they read the Book of Mormon and asked God if it was true. I begged the Lord to inspire them to read and pray right then while no one else was around and watching. After that, we were teaching more people than the zone combined.
“Eric you have to understand that no matter how hard you try to live the gospel, unless you do it for the Lord, you can accomplish nothing. If you want to go back to BYU-Idaho, do it, but do it for the Lord and not for you.”
I wanted to punch him. My anger swelled inside like an over-filled water-balloon held over a bunsen-burner. Gasping for breath, clenching my small wooden dowel, and with feeble attempts to hold my tears, I spoke. “You have absolutely no idea what I am going through right now. Two and a half weeks ago I was struggling to live a good life, and then I mess up. Within twenty-four hours I told Dad what happened and met with the bishop twice; the second time he told me my ecclesiastical endorsement was being pulled. The next weekend I sat in front of the Stake Presidency and twelve high-councilmen to explain what I did and why; and then they asked questions about it; and then they told me I was disfellowshipped from the church. And now, a week after that, I am driving back to Maryland to live with Mom and Dad, something that I never thought I would have to do again. I think I have handled myself pretty damn well so far. So don’t you dare talk to me about how to live my life and who to live it for. I don’t need this.”
Tears were falling freely from his eyes; no attempts were made to wipe them away. “Eric, you don’t know just how good he is.”
He waited. “Do you remember the last time you knew he was real?”
I felt as though he put an iron set of football pads on my shoulders. “Yes.”
“When was it?”
“The night after I was told that I was getting my endorsement pulled. I was praying more sincerely than I had in two years. As I prayed I told the Lord I would not get up until he told me he was there. I repeated, ‘I need to know. I need to know. I need to know.’ Then, as if the thought was coming from the top of my head and not the front, I heard, ‘Of course I am.’ I began to thank him for all the people in my life at the moment. It moved rather quickly from my parents to the people at the writing center. I thanked him for Sister Morgan and everything she taught me without even knowing she taught it. I thanked him for Jacob, Alyssa, Megan, Kiersten, and Rebeckah as role models for what a marriage should be. I thanked him for my roommates Chandler, Ivor, Dan, and Nathan; especially Nathan and his ability to listen and not judge. And I thanked him for everyone else too. The writing center was the first time in my life I felt belonged to people I could truly call friends. Then, again came the voice at the top of my head with the words, ‘And I have always been here.’
“I know he is there Cory. I am afraid that I experience an answer, and then I try to live off of it without bothering to get another. I just get so caught up in everything else that I forget and let my logic take over.” Before I finished my sentence his arms surrounded me.
We embraced for a long time. We talked about other things for several hours until we were both too tired to talk anymore. As I lay on the stiff couch my right arm covered my eyes, over and over I repeated the words, “Thank you.”