Cherishing My Sins

Early in my adult life, after a difficult Mormon childhood spent in a part-member home in Salt Lake City, I converted to Anglican Christianity. My religious understanding and my relationship with God were damaged by my social experience as an involuntarily apostate adolescent, and God’s chosen vehicle to start me healing seems to have been an administrator at All Souls, an Episcopal church on Foothill Boulevard. And so, when I finished college and left Utah, I left the Mormon church as well.

I moved to California and joined a local Episcopal parish. My Mormon fiance was unsettled by it, I think, but he accepted it. Taken as a whole, my time there was good. I made a few close friends, I ran the parish children’s ministry, and my time as a catechumen (i.e., investigator) got me thinking about God. That was important; my years as an Episcopalian coincided with my acceptance of the Atonement and my initially overpowering experience of grace. Somehow, my early religious education had not prepared me for such an event; had I not spent every Sunday morning at a Eucharist service, I’d have had no framework for understanding what had happened.

I liked my church, and I loved the vicar. She gave me guidance when I needed it. She comforted me as I lost several close family members. We schemed to overcome the resistance of the parish as we tried to institute a proper curriculum in our unstructured children’s ministry. I listened to her occasional worries about the unorthodox version of Christianity prevalent in our radical Berkeley parish. We had many conversations about our painful religious upbringings — she’d been raised in a particularly harsh Southern Baptist home, and (as I deduced from my personal experiences to that point) I’d been raised in a church that sees fit to assign adult men to quiz 12-year old children about their sexual habits. I complained about prophets, about the idea of explicit personal revelation, about the inequality of the genders in my church of origin. We were good friends. I was happy.

And then suddenly one morning five years ago, I woke with the unshakeable conviction that, despite my sincere adherence to the faith and despite my close relationship with my vicar, I could never return to my parish. There was something wrong, either with the congregation or with my membership in it. I couldn’t take the Eucharist. I couldn’t transition the children’s ministry to another director. I couldn’t so much as enter the parish hall, never mind the sanctuary. The most I was allowed to do was open the office door long enough to shove the children’s ministry materials and my key inside. I didn’t know why, but God wanted me to leave my church, immediately and forever. The thought of doing otherwise filled me with terror.

I woke my husband and told him as much, expecting that he’d tell me I sounded mad; but he said, “That’s a relief.” He said he’d had a dream that night, a dream that left him with the firm conviction that I must stop attending my church. He’d spent the early hours of the morning feigning sleep and wondering how to say, “So I had a revelation…”.

When I knew the will of God, what could I do, except obey? I knew that my continued life in God’s grace was contingent on my submission to God’s clearly stated will, at least in this one matter. So I did it.

God commanded me to do something else as well, though it wasn’t so vital to my relationship with Him. I was supposed to call the vicar and tell her exactly why I’d left, omitting nothing. She needed the details. I don’t know why—I’ll never know why—but I was supposed to relay the revelation I’d received to her.

I didn’t do it.

I couldn’t. I was too weak. I knew that it wasn’t nearly as important as my departure from the parish, and I was too embarrassed by the story. I feared that she would think me foolish or crazy. I feared that she wouldn’t understand. The whole thing was hard for me to believe, and I had come from a tradition which clearly accepts revelation, both personal and collective. How could she, without such a cultural background, possibly believe that God was giving me explicit directives?

In my fear, I sinned against her. I never called her. I left a brief note at the office. It said only that I had left the parish and that I couldn’t return. When she called my house, I let the answering machine pick up, and I never called her back. She was my friend, my sister at God’s table, and I walked away from her. My mortification overcame the guilt of my disobedience to God and the pain I felt at her distress. I rationalized it with the idea that she’d never believe me, so my explanation wouldn’t console her; it would only insult her.

By the time I had repented of my sin against her, enough time had passed that contacting her to offer any explanation really did seem like a bad idea. Either something bad had already happened to her because of what I didn’t do, or nothing at all was wrong. I’d just dredge up a painful episode for her, making the whole experience worse with my explanation. I knew, just as I’d known that I should call her, that I could make no amends and that I shouldn’t attempt them.

In the time since, I have tried to do the will of God. I am always aware of the grace I have received, but like most other people, I am always aware of how little I truly deserve. And I have felt constant remorse for the sin I committed five years ago. I made it into a talisman. I clung to it. I knowingly injured another and I cannot repair the damage; this fact has been an essential part of my self-image.

I mentioned it to my husband last week. I suppose I’ve mentioned it a few times over the years. He expressed surprise that I, to whom God has given such a strong witness of Christ’s atoning act, should hold so tight to something I cannot fix. He said that what’s done cannot be undone, at least not by me, and that I must trust Christ to do as He promises. Christ does more than forgive me for what I did; He will repair the damage I’ve done when I am helpless to repair it myself.

My husband is right—I know better than to cherish my sins. It’s something I learned years ago, though I’ve never applied it to this sin against my friend. We must give up all our sins if we are to know God. We are not simply to cease committing our sins; we must also abandon our attachment to them. So long as we define ourselves by our past actions, we refuse to accept God’s definition of us; and it’s in God’s shaping of our new lives that we come to know Him.

And so as this year dies, I am resolved to let my old sin die with it. I have present sins enough to be getting on with.

-Serenity Valley

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m glad you finally feel able to let this sin go.

    I finally listened to your podcast over the weekend (I’m a little behind the times technologically speaking), and I’m glad that I did, as it gave me a broader context for appreciating this post.

  2. What a beautiful and touching post. Thank you for sharing, Serenity.

  3. Thank you for sharing such a personal story, SV.

  4. I have a similar memory. I was a missionary, making lunch (lunch time was sacred it was non-missionary time) and felt very strongly that we needed to go see a guy that we knew that lived in our complex. I put it off, thinking, “we’ll just go after lunch” I put off the prompting a few times and then the prompting left. We went after lunch, but the fellow had just left.

    I kick myself over that at various times.

    I’ve also had the thought that if this fellow’s salvation is dependent on whether or not one individual followed a prompting, God is a bit unjust. I am of the opinion that someone more responsible than I came into his life to help him get where he needs to be. I’ll be held accountable for what I didn’t do (either by repenting and being forgiven or by …), but I can’t believe that he has been condemned by my inaction.

    I obviously haven’t let go of that one.

    I had a religion teacher that said, “The only sins we have left are our favorite ones.” It’s odd to think we have “favorite sins,” but if we didn’t enjoy them, why still do them? I’m obviously not including addiction/mental health issues in that which cloud things completely. Ah life.

  5. Bruce V. C. says:

    Your experience answered a prayer. I was just thinking about my own experience similar to yours.

    I’m a convert to the Church (October 23, 04 was my baptism). The summer before I was baptized, I had spent investigating the Church. My conversion is a different story that I’ll share some other time, but most of my summer vacation was spent finding anti-Church stuff and reconciling it with the testimony I had that the Book of Mormon was true after praying about it. These anomalies are what have kept me, I think, on the straight and narrow ever since.

    When it came time to stop attending my old UCC Church (yes, UCC), I had a very difficult time deciding what to do. I knew I couldn’t face my pastor face to face. So I began to write a lengthy letter about all that had happened, with a short version of my testimony. But I couldn’t send it. The sheer length of it disheartened me. The tone, the style, everything told me it was a bad idea. I prayed for inspiration, and the Holy Ghost confirmed that it was not the most diplomatic thing to do.

    So instead, I scrawled a short, friendly, note about my intentions and told my mother to give it to him. I was 15 at the time. That same week, I went back. For the last time. I talked with him somewhat, and three other youth leaders, most of whom, I’m glad, were very level headed and unconcerned. But my pastor wanted to go after the more deep issues (my anti-Mormon background, I’m ashamed to say, actually prepared me in some ways for this) like homosexuality, intricacies of the Word of Wisdom, temple garments, etc. I walked out, never to return since, happy that I had been prepared.

    Now, I live 400 miles away from my mother and siblings, all of whom attend that church weekly. My mother is actually the choir director.

    My move was somewhat sudden and rash. If I could do it all over again, I would have stayed living with her. But I will probably visit them soon. I think I know what I’ll do. I think my situation is actually the opposite of yours. “First be reconciled to thy brother, and then come [to the temple] and offer thy gift” (Matt 5:24). I’m unendowed and that verse speaks volumes to me time and time again.

    This is not the only experience I intend to have. My (now former) stepfather, his family, childhood freinds, and countless others whom I have wronged and want to “‘clear the slate'” with. Now that I’m firmly rooted in the Church, I hope to do just that (see Teachings otPotC: Spencer W. Kimball, p. xxiii). What you did and are doing, I think, is very wise in your particular situation. I am not trying to say differently. But, so that there is no room for doubt, I would say that if we are capable of fixing problems like this, it’s probably best to do so.

    Thank you so much for your story. It’s not an easy one to share. Thank you for your courage to share it. It’s certainly enlightened me about what I face in the next few months.

  6. Welcome, Bruce. That process of making amends for prior behaviors is very difficult but can be wonderfully nourishing to the spirit.

  7. Ah, I had listened to your (anonymous) podcast earlier, and when I was reading this post I wondered if that was you. I’m just glad you came back! =) Welcome home!

  8. Where can I find the podcast?

  9. The podcast that Taryn and I did, with John Dehlin as interviewer, can be downloaded (in two parts) here and here.

  10. Thankyou for sharing. It is often difficult to air our past weaknesses, but in doing so, others can learn wisdom.

    Christ does more than forgive me for what I did; He will repair the damage I’ve done when I am helpless to do it myself.

    That is part of the atonement that we sometimes forget. Christ is the ultimate sinless victim and can heal victims of our malice where we are unable.

  11. Sreenity: Thanks for sharing. The greatest injustice is that after the price has been paid, we keep paying it over and over again by refusing foregivness. In so doing, we create injustice. It is like paying for my car six times because I just don’t feel like once is good enough. Letting go is perhaps the most powerful act we can do — and perhaps the most difficult.

  12. Great post.

  13. A beautifully honest post – thankyou for sharing with us! Leaving our past mistakes behind us is a difficult thing for us to give ourselves permission to do, as you’ve expressed.

  14. I would mail her a copy of this blog post, with a letter apologizing.

    I know that the heart longs after friends, even after they are long gone. Closure is such an overused word, and it isn’t really closure, but bringing things full circle always helps.

    I know that I have friends I still wonder about, my heart is still empty for, and I would still like to hear from.

  15. Molly Bennion says:

    Beautiful suggestion, Stephen M.

  16. Thank you all for your kind comments; I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Sorry I took so long to respond!

    Stephen M., I wish I could, but I’ve got the very definite impression that I’m meant to leave it alone. There’s the rub, you know?

  17. By the way, those who are looking for our autobiographical podcast, my husband posted links to both segments of it in comment #9 above.

  18. Serenity Valley, thanks for such honest and heartfelt reflections. I too have sometimes struggled over whether it’s best to try to contact people and make amends for old wrongs or to leave them alone. I think I’ve sometimes made things worse by contacting people and dredging up old episodes. I find it a difficult judgment call.

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