Monday, February 13, 2012

My experience as the father of non-believers (Part Two, in which the atonement works)

In my last post on this subject, I described my emotional response to the choice of some of my children to leave the church. And I postulated that my emotional response might have led (at least some of) my kids who left to question my love for them.

Of course I did love them, and it was out of my love for them that I felt the distress I did. And it was my misguided understanding of how to show that love that I likely confused them.

When I was a boy, I had a covered wagon lamp kit, which I decided to assemble myself one evening. I put the wagon together, and then I put the lamp fixture and cord on the wagon. At some point, I realized I had not strung the cord through the hole in the bottom of the covered wagon. I decided the easiest way to remedy this situation was to cut the cord, string it through the hole, and then re-tape the wire. So I took my wire cutters and cut the cord.

Oh, did I mention it was plugged in? As I cut the cord, the lights went out. We lived in an old house with fuses (not circuit breakers) and we probably only had one or two fuses at that. So a lot of the house went dark. I sat in the darkness, not quite sure what had happened. My father came downstairs to check the fuse box and asked me what had happened. When I told him, he (in an astonishingly calm way, now that I think about it) taught me about electricity and told me I had shorted out the system. He also pointed out that I was lucky I didn’t get shocked. (The wire cutters, thankfully, had insulated handles.)

He then explained something that has always stuck with me. He said that when people grab a live wire, they can’t let go because the electricity causes their muscles to contract, tightening their grip on the wire. That’s why, he explained, that electricians who don’t know if a wire is live, might touch it first with the back of their hand, so if their hand closes, it won’t be on the wire.

When my children began to leave the church, I tightened my grip, as if I were clutching a live wire. And I could not let go.

Until, that is, the Savior finally helped me.

A year or two after my oldest son left home to go to college (and about three years since he’d last been to church), I was serving as bishop. I had interviewed a couple who was working on the repentance process, and it was our final meeting as they and I had all received a witness that they had done what the Lord wanted them to do, and they could return to full fellowship.

The brother observed that that day happened to be Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On my way home from church that night, I contemplated the blessings of the atonement. I reflected on a letter I’d written my son year or two earlier in which I’d written about how much he needed the atonement in his life. On that night, the Lord taught me in no uncertain terms that it was I who needed the atonement in my life.

I had never felt more like Nephi in 2 Nephi 4 before that night. I had laid out to me very clearly where I had acted out of pride and anger as a father, and where I needed to repent.

Thus began a long process in which I discovered the power of the atonement to heal me. Over time, I learned to accept my children’s choices for what they were – their exercise of God-given agency over which I had no control. Over time I came to have faith that if and when God needed them to return, He would oversee that change in them, not me. I developed greater faith in the power of the sealing ordinance, and greater understanding of the Lord’s mercy as it related to my weakness.

The change in me was not overnight. In fact, it has been about a decade since that realization, and God’s not done with me yet.

During the process, a good friend spoke in our sacrament meeting. She reminded us that there will be no wards and stakes in heaven, only families. In that moment, it occurred to me that I needed to do what it took so that my children (all of my children) could be comfortable in my family, even if they were not comfortable next to me on a bench in sacrament meeting.

I will add that my standards have not changed. I still live by them, and the minor children who live in my home still live by them. But I recognize that my children – those at home and away – choose how they will live; I cannot dictate those choices for them.

As I mentioned in a comment on the previous post, I had a stake president who counseled me during those turbulent years in our monthly stewardship interviews. He reminded me regularly that eternity is a long time. I’m grateful for that, because I may need a long time to get it right


  1. Paul: Thank you for adding this second piece. The live wire analogy is a wonderful visual - one that I will remember.

  2. "it occurred to me that I needed to do what it took so that my children (all of my children) could be comfortable in my family, even if they were not comfortable next to me on a bench in sacrament meeting."

    This. Yes. This is what I want with my siblings who have left the Church. And all people who have left the Church - I want them to feel comfortable in God's family, regardless of whether or not they feel comfortable on a bench in Sacrament meeting.

    Well put.

  3. Thanks for the comments, MMM & Becca.

    Becca, one of my greatest learnings was the role I play in helping my "departing" family members (not just my kids) to feel comfortable.

  4. How do you handle it when someone in your family (child or brother-I've had both) doesn't just leave the church, but becomes an enemy to the church--mocks and redicules what is sacred to us. I suppose I could handle it if they just said, "I just don't beleive it anymore." But to then strive to undermine the church using mean tactics, puts a different slant on it. How do you keep loving while the knife is being twisted?

  5. Anonymous, this is a great (and difficult) question. My kids are indifferent at best (now), though they were pretty openly rebellious when they were younger. Still, they did not pick fights.

    The Savior taught us to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, and yet not to cast our pearls before swine. A good friend of mine simply avoids the discussion wherever he can. That's a sad state, since the church occupies such a large part of active members' lives, but it works for him.