How do you feel when you hear the words “covenant path?”
When you think about Pr. Nelson’s direction to “keep on the covenant path,” who do you think he’s talking to: you or your children who don’t come to church?
What is a covenant? Do you think about it transactionally or relationally?
What do you mean when you describe someone as “inactive,” “less active,” or “returning member?” Does thinking about your children in those terms help or hinder your relationship with them?
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Welcome, everybody! Today we’re going to talk a little bit about the covenant path and the way we tell stories about ourselves and about others, and the way we tell stories TO ourselves and to others. Honestly, I’ve wrestled a lot with this question, and even more recently as I’ve thought about what I want to share about my thoughts. Hopefully, future episodes won’t ask as much time of me or I won’t even be able to keep up with a once per month pace. But I HAVE wrestled with the idea of the covenant path and I have some thoughts I hope will be helpful to you.
Before we dive in I want you to pause for a minute and notice how you feel when I say “the covenant path.” Maybe you hear this expression and feel comfort and safety because you think our Heavenly Parents have prepared a way for us to return to Them through our Savior Jesus Christ. Maybe you hear this expression and feel despair and dread because you think someone you love is not on the covenant path and they should be.
Notice that there isn’t any one way to think or feel about the covenant path, but different thoughts about the covenant path create different emotions for people. In fact, the same thought about the covenant path can create a different emotion for different people. Thinking the thought that our Heavenly Parents have prepared a way for us to return to Them can feel painful to someone who also has the underlying thought that something has gone wrong that their child isn’t taking advantage of that opportunity.
So notice what thoughts and feelings come up for you when you think of the covenant path. I invite you to let them be whatever they are without judging whether or not you should think or feel that way.
If you’re a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you’re familiar with the expression “the covenant path.” It’s something Pr. Nelson has been talking about since he became President of the Church. If you’re listening to this podcast, you probably also have someone in your life that someone could describe as not being in the covenant path. You’ve probably felt some pain, sorrow, or worry when anyone brings up the covenant path, and that makes sense on some level.
In President Russell M. Nelson’s first public address after he was set apart as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he said this,
“Now, to each member of the Church I say, keep on the covenant path. Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available to men, women, and children everywhere….[He goes on:]
Now, if you have stepped off the path, may I invite you with all the hope in my heart to please come back. Whatever your concerns, whatever your challenges, there is a place for you in this, the Lord’s Church. You and generations yet unborn will be blessed by your actions now to return to the covenant path. Our Father in Heaven cherishes His children, and He wants each of us to return home to Him. This is a grand goal of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—to help each of us to come back home.”
I notice a couple of things about this quote. The first thing I notice is that he’s talking to members of the Church and asking US to follow the Savior. And he’s telling me as a member of the Church that if I have stepped off the path, he invites me to come back. He’s talking to the people who are listening to him and he’s talking to us about ourselves. He isn’t talking to people who are not listening, and he isn’t talking to me about anyone else–not even my children. The invitation is for me to follow the Savior. The invitation is not for me to control everyone around me and make sure they live their lives the way I think they should.
So, what is the covenant path? What’s hard about it? How can we relate to the idea in a way that’s healthy for us and for our relationships?
The simplest way for me to think about the covenant path is that it’s the way back to Heavenly Father. Part of our belief system in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that we lived with Heavenly Parents before we came to earth, that life on earth was meant to teach us to be like Them, and that we can return to Them through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. In order to return, we each need to make covenants with God, special agreements where God sets the terms of the agreement. Baptism is an ordinance where we make a covenant to follow Jesus, followed by confirmation where we receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. There are further covenants we make in the temple, including temple marriage. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bd/covenant?lang=eng
What a lot of people have in mind when they think of someone being in the covenant path is a person visibly, actively progressing from baptism to temple covenants and then continuing to participate at church and in temple worship, renewing the baptism covenant by partaking of the sacrament at our Sunday sacrament meetings. People showing up at church are ostensibly “on the covenant path.” They are doing things that will get them blessings from God is how we sometimes think of it. People not showing up at church are ostensibly NOT “on the covenant path” and not worthy of the same blessings.
There’s another way to think about a covenant, though, that is relational rather than transactional. I like to think about making a covenant as entering into a particular relationship with God. My life coach training taught me that my relationship with anyone is simply how I think about them. My relationship with my mom is how I think about her. My relationship with my brother is how I think about him. My relationship with my child is how I think about them. My relationship with my ex-husband is how I think about him. And my relationship with God is how I think about God. So for me, my formal participation in a covenant ritual like baptism, sacrament, or temple worship is an expression of my intention to be in a relationship with my Heavenly Parents where I am trying to follow my Savior Jesus Christ to become more like Him, where I remember Jesus and commit to grow.
All of that sounds pretty great, right? What’s not to like about the covenant path? Well, for parents whose children are not participating at church, thoughts about the covenant path can be a source of pain, sorrow, and worry. What does it mean if your son was baptized at age 8, raised in the church, and then decides not to serve a mission? What does it mean if you find alcohol in his room? What if he moves in with his girlfriend? What does it mean if your daughter serves a mission and then at some point stops attending church? What does it mean if your daughter doesn’t graduate from seminary? What does it mean if your child is gender non-conforming?
We might think it means that they have gone off the covenant path, that they are lost or gone astray, that something has gone wrong. We can worry about their immediate physical safety with some of the choices they make. We can feel rejected when we think the life they are creating for themselves is not the life they should be living, the one we had imagined for them during all those years of regular or irregular family home evening and family scripture study. We can feel shame when we think our children’s choices are evidence that we did it wrong, or that if we had just been more faithful and consistent with family prayer, or spent more time at home with them, this wouldn’t be happening. All of these thoughts are potentially painful, and none of them is true.
What? What do I mean, none of them is true? Here’s what I mean. The human brain is a meaning-making machine. Your brain will come up with a story about anything. It isn’t true and it isn’t untrue. It’s simply the story our mind tells. Let’s say a car pulls into traffic in front of me some number of feet closer than I feel comfortable with, without signaling for whatever length of time I think is appropriate. I can think the driver’s a jerk. I can think they’re a bad driver generally. I can think they must have been distracted in that moment. I can think they have an urgent need to get to the hospital to be with their child who was just taken to the emergency room. And depending on which of those stories my brain chooses to tell and which story I choose to believe, I’m going to feel mad, disgusted, frustrated, compassionate or loving. I’m going to have a different experience of driving on the road that day based on the story I tell myself about that driver who pulled their car in front of me. I’m probably never going to know what the “truth” is. And it doesn’t matter what the so-called truth is, whether they drive like this all the time or whether they have a reason I think is good enough to drive like that today, the only thing that matters to my experience is the story I tell myself about what happened. And what happened is simply a driver drove their car in front of me at a certain speed and a certain distance without me seeing them make a signal. It isn’t a good thing. It isn’t a bad thing. It’s just a person in a car that is now in front of me.
Now if my brain tells a story about how that driver almost hit me and I could have died, I might feel afraid. If I notice that I didn’t die, I might feel relieved. But none of that is coming from the car in front of me. It’s all coming from my brilliant, story-telling, human brain that is trying to avoid pain and keep me alive.
So what does this have to do with the covenant path? Well, sometimes when the people around us start doing things we didn’t expect and didn’t want, our brilliant, story-telling, human brains panic. Our daughter decides not to go to seminary or church. Our child lets us know they’re part of the LGBTQ+ community. Our son consumes alcohol and moves in with his girlfriend before getting married. And our brains think things like, “Oh no! My child is not on the covenant path! The world has led them astray! They are lost! They’ve gone inactive!” And then we feel panic or shame or anger or worry, not because of our children’s choices, but because of what we think about them. We might even call it judging. And then we want our children to make different choices so we can feel better.
Here’s the good news: we can feel better now, no matter what our kids do. No matter what our kids believe, feel, or do, we can find peace in Christ. We can choose to tell a story of hope, for ourselves and for our children, because the truth is we don’t know what the truth is about how anyone’s story ends.
I was sitting in a Relief Society meeting for women at church one Sunday and someone started talking about children who had grown up in the church and who are now “inactive.” It got me thinking about why I choose to say the longer version, that my kids don’t come to church, when “inactive” is a common description that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints use.
But what does “inactive” actually mean? There isn’t a clear definition of what it means. Does it mean they don’t come to church every Sunday? What if they’re sick or traveling? Does it mean they don’t read their scriptures every day? What if they forget one day? Does it mean they haven’t read their scriptures or entered a church building in a month? In a year? 5 years? 10 years? How long, then, does it take for someone to become inactive? When does it start? What’s the precise moment where someone switches from being active to inactive? Once they become inactive, do they stop being inactive if they read a verse of scripture one day? When they see a poster with a scripture reference on it at an athletic event on television and kind of remember what that scripture says, does that count? What about prayer? How do we know whether someone prays? Does it only count if they are kneeling down and using the format we’re used to, addressing Heavenly Father and closing in the name of Jesus Christ? What constitutes a prayer and how do we know if someone is doing it?
Over my lifetime, the term “inactive” has fallen out of official use in the Church in favor of “less active” and then later that was rejected in favor of “returning” members. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with using the word “inactive,” it’s just unclear what that specifically means. The same is true for “less active” and “returning.” “Inactive” isn’t a fact; it’s a story. It can mean different things to different people, depending on their experience and perception. If local church leaders sitting in a ward council want to use the term “inactive,” “less active,” or “returning” member as a succinct way to describe people whose perceivable behavior falls into a clearly defined category they’ve established locally, then that’s potentially useful. If they decide, for example, it means anyone who has attended sacrament meeting less than once a month for more than one month in a row, then that’s useful. It’s less useful to use the word “inactive” in a regular Sunday RS or EQ or SS meeting where we’re all going to have a different idea of what it means. And sometimes what it comes to mean is that those other “inactive” people are not like us and we need to go find them and explain to them what they’re doing wrong. We think they are broken and we need to fix them.
Sometimes people have good reasons for not coming to church. Church is full of human people getting things wrong–a lot. Sometimes we misunderstand the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, sometimes we understand a principle of the gospel but live it imperfectly, judging others, being so certain-sure of all the ways we are right.
Here’s what I’ve noticed. Those “inactive” people are exactly like us. They are acting on their existing belief system, and we are acting on ours.
The human brain likes a nice binary dichotomy where we’re either active or inactive, on the covenant path or not on the covenant path. It’s a tidy way of organizing the world to know whether my socks are inside the drawer or outside of the drawer. But there are a lot of things that don’t work like that. We may be inside or outside of our personal faith in any given moment. There’s a lot more fluidity around that than around my sock drawer, and a lot more complexity, too. And the truth is, the only person I can really know the truth about in relation to God is me.
So, if you’re a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I join Pr. Nelson in inviting you to be on the covenant path to follow the Savior. I invite all of us to practice feeling peace and love more often than fear and judgment. Our covenants rescue us from misery because we have hope in Christ. It’s going to be okay. If we’re wrong? Well, in that case, we spent a lot of time feeling peace and love and making decisions from that place.
Remember, there are no empty chairs.