The letter I won’t send…
I woke you up for Church this morning differently than I normally do. It wasn’t, “Time to get up. Church starts in an hour.” It was, “If you’re going to church, you should get up. I hope you choose to go.”
As of this morning, you are eighteen. I’ve always told you that when you reached this age, the choice to attend or not to attend would be yours.
In our family, we’ve never shied away from the difficult issues of our religion and its past. But that sometimes complicated, convoluted past is not the essence of our faith. It’s a footnote at best. You hate the three-hour block, hate Sunday clothes, and you get totally bugged when my eyes tear as I talk about something dear to me in Sunday school. So I won’t be surprised if you take some time off. Your dad and I have not given you a testimony of the gospel, because it is not ours to give, only to offer. We can’t force you to love the core of the Mormon faith the way we love it. We can pass the sacrament tray to you, but partaking of bread and water has only the meaning you assign it in your own heart; the sacrament prayer means very little if you don’t reiterate your long-ago decision to take upon yourself the name of Christ as you listen to it. (And you were only eight when you made that decision, and didn’t really comprehend what your baptism would mean and require.)
I yearn for you to be a temple-endowed missionary, because I know what a good mission does. Granted, there are some lousy missionaries, but the good ones learn to love people they might have disregarded in another setting; to have eyes focused to situations which call them to compassion. Every missionary is a minister–even carrying a ministerial certificate. This is one of the great things in our religion–that you don’t need a degree to serve God as a designated representative. A woman who lectures about how to teach children charity said that a Mormon “mission trip” is quintessentially a long lesson on charity, and something she admires. I would love to have you become “Elder Young.” But that will be your choice, not mine. I don’t want you to go on a mission because you know I yearn for it. You should love the Lord if you are to become His servant. But love grows, so you can begin with something small and simply believe that service will magnify it.
As I walked to church alone this morning, I noticed our ward members headed the same direction as me. Such good will, so many good desires. And in every life and every family, challenges I can’t possibly calculate. But all of us are trying, summoned by our traditions and our faith to a church where we will sing first, “Because I have Been Given Much, I too Must Give.” We will follow that with “How Great the Wisdom and the Love…that sent the Savior from on High, to suffer, bleed and die” as the sacrament hymn, and then young men your age will bless the emblems.
It was testimony meeting today. This is what you missed:
Brother D–talked about repentance and how it felt to come back to Church after four years away. He said that he found himself filled with love rather than grumpiness, and kept asking himself why he had quit the Church. There had been an offense, and he had carried it–or it had carried him. He was ready to lay it at the altar of the Lord and let it go. He mentioned that the bishop had visited with him.
Sister T talked about a friend who had lost a four-year-old child this past week, and how her faith was bearing her up. The woman had gone to the temple to seek comfort, and she had found it.
A new ward member talked about how his testimony that God lives took on new dimensions in every stage of life–from his missionary farewell, to his homecoming, to his marriage, to the present moment.
Your dad bore his testimony too, about how much he loves the ward members, and that he was adjusting to his new calling as a bishop after 4 1/2 months. The ward members have no idea how much they are on his mind and in his heart. I get a glimpse.
I was glad you came to my Sunday school class. I gave you all the best stories I know about Nauvoo, but Nauvoo isn’t the core of our faith. There are some good stories there, but once again, they are footnotes.
The core of our religion was foreordained from before the foundations of the world, and happened on the Mount of Olives. The atonement is a miracle and a covenant which I don’t fully comprehend. Nonetheless, I seek to remember it at all times and in all places. I want to imagine myself there as my Savior approaches the olive press and prepares to fulfill his part of the Great Covenant.
Seconds before you were born, when I knew what the next, undrugged pains would entail, I told your dad, “I don’t want to do this.” He responded, “It’s too late.” And then you moved through me. I screamed, and you were born–a beautiful little boy, longer and leaner than your three siblings, hinting at the height you have now. You didn’t cry much, just looked around with a “What is all of this light?” expression on your little face. A few hours later, as your dad and I tried to sleep in another hospital room, I relived your delivery. I actually relived it. I felt you come through me, but there was no pain. My whole being was consumed with the words, “How beautiful! How beautiful!” That I had delivered YOU. That I had given you to the light. Giving birth is the most Christlike thing I have ever done. Giving birth to you in particular was an honor and a blessing.
I wanted to be a perfect mother, of course, and I did make you Halloween costumes and produce fun birthday parties–and don’t forget that I took you to an Eric Clapton concert. But the thing I most wanted to give, you must find on your own.
I did, however, give you hymns, and I believe they will guide you. They’re in your soul in ways you don’t realize. Of all the songs you’ve learned, you know the hymns the best. Sure, your dad and I embarrassed you terribly when we started singing “Come Thou Fount” in some lovely ruins of Antigua, Guatemala–and tourists and tour guides stopped to applaud. You, of course, left for awhile, not wanting to admit you belonged to the Singing Youngs.
Last week, at National Arches Monument, in a canyon called “The Windows,” I sat in a corner and started singing it again, quietly.
Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
Tune My Heart to Sing Thy Grace
Streams of mercy never ceasing
Call for songs of loudest praise…
When I realized that there were only a couple of non-Youngs nearby, I got louder. This time, you didn’t resist. You didn’t sing, but at least you didn’t cover your ears and run away.
There we were, on Pioneer Day, your brother and sister, your parents, and you, traipsing through the iron-rich sandstone mountains, following subtle trails, sometimes together, sometimes apart. Sometimes you helped me up a ledge, and sometimes I helped you. And we both helped your dad. And suddenly, we were all singing in lovely harmony, from wherever we were:
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.
If you leave this religion for awhile, I think the hymns (and that one in particular, though it is not specifically Mormon) will remind you of something sweet in your own religious history. Hearing our music, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, will bring back memories of sitting with me on a hard bench listening to someone say something about Jesus. You won’t remember the talk, but you will probably remember that I rubbed your back as we listened.
You’ll remember little acts of service you did–like taking the sacrament to shut-ins or hometeaching with your dad, visiting people in grief or meeting struggles you probably didn’t imagine at the time. (You will never know the kinds of burdens your dad carried as a bishop unless you become a bishop yourself.)
You’ll remember that on Saturday mornings, I went to the temple to help with the Spanish session, and that your dad went later in the day to do Initiatory. I long to have you understand just what we were doing there, and why we love the temple.
You will remember us in Guatemala, teaching Cakchiquel children or singing (to your utter embarrassment) in Antigua.
You will remember singing “I Am A Child of God” when we performed a play about Jane Manning James. All of us cast members–black and white–brought our children onstage for that.
You will remember our various paths and trails–those we literally followed, and those metaphorical journeys we took, making our way from tragedy to hope, and from anger to forgiveness. I believe each journey—even those still underway—ends in redemption. I believe each ends with a realization that all of it–even the most anguished moment–was unspeakably beautiful.
The hymns speak of such redemption, of times when we’ll greet those we’ve lost and together feel the joy and miracle of our deliverance. I find great comfort knowing I have given you hymns, and one in particular, which you will always remember, which will remind you of who we are as a family and how we fit into each other, and even into our faith—regardless of where we might be at the moment.
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be.
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
Someday, I’ll print this for you. I think it will be a happy day.