With a toss of her hair, my daughter disappeared down a narrow tunnel called Junior High. I peer at her in there, stubborn and beautiful, through an entrance too small for my maternal and clumsy reach. So, in a surge of both yearning and domestic sanitation I decided to clean her room. It was Saturday and she was away at an all-day rehearsal. I had time.
When you clean a teenager’s room, you are compelled to overturn the rock of their hidden world and see, half-frightened, what wriggles beneath. Pull back the bed and you will find secrets: candy wrappers, forgotten notes and all the dusty things she aches to tell you but never will. Empty the closet and the smell will wrap you in melancholy. Bring everything out from its hiding place you will mark the chaotic battle between girl and woman, strewn in a sea of nail polish, socks, and teddy bears.
After a few hours I found myself surrounded by piles. Some were easy to define. Garbage. Laundry. Hair things. Pencils. Other piles were more elusive as I struggled to attach meaning to the growing piles of Things We Keep: the regrettable souvenirs, the trophies everyone gets, and the swollen, tumbling mass of church paraphernalia. It was the last pile that troubled me the most. What would I do with the trinkets, handouts, crafts, bookmarks, framed pictures, quotes, stories, empty journals (at least eight), and other minutia she had accumulated over her short 13 years of church attendance. They were thoughtfully given and kindly received, but what did they mean?
Take girls camp. She returned with a camp shirt, matching bandana, cowboy hat, stick horse, modge podge temple scene, secret sister gifts, a miniature lantern, a foam noodle flotation device and bags of candy. She had the snipe hunt. She had The Testimony Meeting Where Everyone Cries. She had a blast. Months later I sit surrounded by the material reminders of her experience and wonder if her spiritual self is suffocating under the weight of material things. And by extension, are leaders so burdened with the expectations of providing stuff that we laden our youth—especially our young women—with too many things, often at the expense of more meaningful experiences?
While gifts and impactful conversion are not mutually exclusive, the evidence around me revealed a dependence on gospel paraphernalia, as if growth were impossible material reward. As I recalled my own experiences as a vulnerable youth, I craved the time, respect, and attention of my leaders. I appreciated those few who got to know me personally, and showed a genuine concern for my spiritual welfare.
Now, as one who teaches youth I understand the fear of going in bare, without material support to shore up a lesson. Sometimes, gifts of treats and trinkets reflect our my own efforts to “make up the difference”. Our mind wanders from our lesson prep and searches for that one gift that will gild the lily or that clever quote that will impress. As we ask, “Is it enough?”, do we resist the urge to plug the hole of our own spiritual inadequacy with a scrolled quote and a bow? We have been reminded,
“… my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness;
When we utilize the gift of grace we are promised ensure our teaching is sufficient in the Lord’s eyes. It is enough. And yet, not every gift is a crutch. Often material gifts, treats, and incentives open the door for more spiritual gifts that may not otherwise be attainable for some. My mother has taught me that the visiting teaching message goes down much better with banana bread. Receiving the medallion in the Young Women’s Personal Progress has become a unifying symbol among women in the church. And often through the benign process of crafting or creating, doors of fellowship are opened.
Because of the subjective nature of such gifts, gospel “extras” should be a matter prayerful discretion and not fodder for the classroom arms race. With four daughters and 24 cumulative years of Young Women’s ahead of them, I look at the perils (and piles) ahead and hope that we can love them more and give them less. When Christ walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, they were left with no gift but a burning heart:
The courage to rely on respectful, thoughtful discussion and most importantly, the Spirit will perpetuate a pattern of learning that can be mirrored in the real world. Especially in light of the missionary age change, this generation of girls should be taught the gospel unfettered so that they are armed with the full force of gospel knowledge and power. I don’t know how the gospel message for young women became so entrenched in the cutesified world of Pinterest-inspired crafts, themes, and decor, where gospel truths are reduced to the obligatory bite-size treat, but scaling back even a little and dedicating that time instead to personal attention would yield spiritual dividends. With the new Young Women’s curriculum goals stated as conversion to the gospel, such attention to the personal, spiritual needs of each young woman is essential.
Imagine Christ, instead of walking and talking with his disciples on the road to Emmaus, giving instead that same message as a handout (scrolled, of course), themed shirt (or robe?), and treat (honeycomb?) and sending them on their way. Would it have the same spiritual impact? While some may miss the superfluous, I would trade it all for my daughter to settle in for her Sunday afternoon nap feeling the love of the Lord and her leaders and think, “Did not my heart burn within me?”
A few weeks ago I happened to be at D.I.* looking for a used photo frame. What I saw among the stacks of used and broken pictures was a large scale version of the pile in my daughter’s room. Framed images of Christ, portraits of the prophets, discarded copies Proclamation to the World: The Family with pressed flowers still intact, framed temples, various gospel art, and quotes from church leaders and scriptures. These sad, discarded images embodied an opportunity lost to choose grace over gifts, and the need to wean ourselves from this clutter and reach for the elusive courage to embrace the gospel it unfettered by an excess of adornments.
In the end, she kept a few things from the church pile, but not many. A drawing of the empty tomb. A photo of the temple. A tile with quote on faith placed among the jewelry boxes and jars. After a day of sifting through her elusive world my tenderness for her swelled, as did my hope for her honorable return from the teen tunnel. That would be gift enough.
*Deseret Industries is a thrift store operated by the LDS Church.