Waiting for the Prodigal: Nielson #LDSconf

prodigal

We heard two talks on Sunday morning that spoke in beneficial and direct ways about issues confronting many church members: faith and doubt. As I’ve pondered both talks, by Sister Wixom and by Elder Nielson, I keep circling back around to the tender place where my love for my brothers and sisters lives, and where my own journey has taken me, repeatedly…

Faith and doubt are not a binary system.

Faith and doubt, in my life and in the lives of many I know and love, are a woven braid of companionship and even sometimes strength. When we set ourselves into camps of “those who believe” and “those who doubt” we are creating a false dichotomy, a place where one group can pity the other, and not experience and share their burdens and joy. We place tension where it need not exist, and we dismantle the beautiful, strong braided cord rather than utilizing that strength to build bridges.

This is one of the reasons why Elder Nielson’s talk resonated so strongly with me. I admit, I cringed when he started out telling the story of his sister- it’s a familiar and sore place, and I steeled myself for another cautionary tale with binary platitudes. I was wrong. Elder Nielson sets up the familiar tale within the framework of his own family, and his sister’s departure from the church. I appreciated his clarifying his sister’s consent to share her story before he continued on with the details.

Elder Nielson says “…with our sister, our persistent efforts to rescue her and to invite her back only pushed her further and further away.” This no doubt resonates with many church members who have been in similar situations- and frankly, these church members are his audience. They do show persistent effort to reach out to those they feel are lost, who are the ones who wandered away from the flock. The church members so use language like “rescue” and “invite” and then wonder why their very sincere efforts are in vain. He and his family felt like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, and were willing to honor their sister’s choices based on the example given by the Savior.

His family did all the good things Mormons do. And the sister still stayed away- not from the family, but from church. How wonderful to have an example in General Conference of what it looks like to continue to love, include and accept the choices of a beloved family member. Like many of you, I have heard too many (even one is too many) stories of individuals who leave the church also losing their families. It’s an unnecessary tragedy, and one simple to avoid. Keep being loving. Keep including, keep supporting and keep treating with kindness and respect. For fifteen years, this family kept being a family, despite differences.

For the Nielson family, it took fifteen years of being a cohesive, loving family before his sister chose to come back. He says “Many of you, like the Nielson family, have family members who have temporarily lost their way… When the lost one is your son or your daughter, your brother or your sister, and he or she has chosen to leave, we learned in our family that, after all we can do, we love that person with all of our hearts and we watch, we pray, and we wait for the Lord’s hand to be revealed.”

But here’s where he departs and turns the mirror around for all of us to see, and what makes this talk greater than the sum of it’s somewhat predictable— if loving— parts:

“I had always related to the son who stayed home. As [my son] read that morning, I realized in some ways I was the prodigal son. All of us fall short of the glory of the Father. All of us need the Savior’s atonement to head us. ALL of us are lost and need to be found. This revelation helped me to know that my sister and I… were actually on the same path back home.”

So often, those who stay in the church set themselves up as the strands of the cord “those who believe” and those who question as “those who doubt”. The truth is, our lives are a rich tapestry of cords woven together of the richness of human experience, and setting oneself up as the righteous one needlessly alienates the other- regardless of who the other is. Because, as Elder Nielson rightly points out, we are all the prodigal to the Lord.

Comments

  1. “I have heard too many (even one is too many) stories of individuals who leave the church also losing their families.”

    It is certainly a tragedy when this happens. Sadly I’ve seen it go both ways – with people who are very close to me – where the person leaving the church is the one to cut off ties with friends in the church or to stop coming to family activities.

  2. I suspect, as in all things, it’s a two way street. Most of the people I know who have left have done so with quiet grace, accompanied with a lot of pain, both for them, and for their families. Losing one’s community hurts, and Mormon roots are deep. Losing one’s family is catastrophic. Feeling like one is losing one’s child would be catastrophic. I think the whole point is, we all need to err on the side of love, and realize that road back to God is mighty crowded.

  3. These were great talks. I think where we trip up sometimes despite good intentions is when we talk about people who no longer associate themselves with the church as losing their way – temporarily or permanently. I don’t believe we mean to be as arrogant and condescending as that sounds, but it can be easily percieved as such. I think the best practice is to honor people who are choosing a different path instead of presuming they have lost their way.

  4. whizzbang says:

    The sad reality is some people never come back. I just wonder how God will treat them and they don’t have to be out of the Church to be lost either!

  5. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    I was struck by the seemingly benign comment that the home teachers and visiting teachers ‘never gave up’. I hope that this means that they ‘never gave up’ with prayers and petitions to the Lord for inspiration on how they could meet her needs and respect her desire for distance. I hope it did not mean that they ‘never gave up’ by reciting messages automatically from church magazines and badgering about church attendance until their stint as her assigned friend came to an end.

  6. Rigel, I hope the same. It’s terribly disrespectful for anyone to impose their beliefs on someone if they’ve been asked not to do so.

    CJ, yes, too often well-meaning comments can be or are condescending- which is why I think Elder Nielson’s realization that he wasn’t the son who stayed home, but also a prodigal, was so important. Too often those who stay feel superior to those who doubt or who leave. It’s not up to any person to make that call; we are called to love, and to forgive- nothing more, nothing less.

  7. Michael says:

    For reasons I won’t go into here, I don’t attend my geographic ward. We got all the needed approvals (eventually) and jumped borders, but for about a year the “old” ward thought I’d gone apostate/inactive. The EQ president even sent me a photocopy of a hand-written letter, eight pages of calling me to repentance and inviting me to return to the fold.

    I hadn’t missed a single week of church.

    With kind and loving efforts like this, it’s a wonder that anybody returns. It’s certainly given me insight into how we Mormons often excel at doing the exact wrong thing that people need. I now home teach a sister who hasn’t been to church in years. Sometimes it’s just an email saying “I’m thinking of you, and if you’d like to come to Sacrament meeting five minutes late and leave ten minutes early, I’ll save you a seat.”

  8. This talk and that of President Wixom are definite step forwards in this dialogue and rhetoric regarding faith, doubt, belief and activity. I believe that Mormonism will be stronger when we are both easier to enter and easier to leave. Our level of boundary maintenance is just far higher than I think the gospel of Christ calls for. We have a long way to go but it is important to recognize positive steps on the journey. I would love to hear a story like that told by Elder Nielsen that doesn’t end with the nice Mormon bow, a story that is left unfinished, or in which the loved person is respected for their decision and loved even if they never come back. The universe is broad and God is deep.

  9. This talk was amazing. I grew up in the South and so have had many friends, etc who choose a different path. I myself, as an LDS person living in the Bible Belt, was on a different path from the majority.
    I have found that now that I am living in Happy Valley, that LDS folk don’t understand this pricinple of different paths.
    To have this talk come from across the pulpit, to state that sometimes we need to let people walk that path and yet not shun them, to be friendly while we have from our path, meant so much to me.
    I truly felt like the Lord was giving me a personal affirmation, “yes, you are right”, keep loving them as your brothers and sisters and let me worry about their salvation, as you worry about your own.
    It was a very profound talk and one that I desperately needed to hear.

  10. @rah, I just imagined that in my head. :) Maybe that is being naiieve of me, but I think I heard it, if I listened hard enough in between the lines.

  11. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    which is why I think Elder Nielson’s realization that he wasn’t the son who stayed home, but also a prodigal, was so important.

    I really appreciated this as well. The book “Falling to Heaven” used an allegory that our need for a Savior is like trying to bail water out of a leaky boat. Not one of us has a leak-free boat and we all need help in bailing out the water. Some boats will leak faster than the other, but the need for help in bailing out the water is universal.

    Elder Nielson’s talk suggested that we need to learn humility that our own sins should not be self-judged to be less significant in need for atoning grace than those of another. At least that is a message I took away and was pleased to ponder.

  12. Rigel, I read it the same way, and found it inspiring for the same reason.

  13. “I hope that this means that they ‘never gave up’ with prayers and petitions to the Lord for inspiration on how they could meet her needs and respect her desire for distance. I hope it did not mean that they ‘never gave up’ by reciting messages automatically from church magazines and badgering about church attendance until their stint as her assigned friend came to an end.

    For a home teacher or visiting teacher, seeking and obtaining inspiration from the Lord is is the key, in every case. Respecting a desire for distance is not the pre-destined answer to the query to the Lord any more than reciting messages from church magazines is.

  14. drbrewhaha says:

    These talks were excellent. Just as you described faith and doubt as cords of the same braid I think the desire to rescue and the desire to leave alone are also braided together and that makes it difficult to always make the right choice. I believe I respect an individual’s right to choose a different path, but when it is (especially) a family member, there is such a strong desire to pull them back into your protecting arms, especially if they are your child. The problem is that that desire to rescue will never, ever leave. The question is how we moderate it. Perhaps the key is to keep it simple. Instead of writing an 8-page call to repentance (yikes) just send a text AND (this is the key) trust that the Lord will take that small text and make it something better eventually.

    Just as we must not place each other in the doubt or the faith camp I think we must not place each other (or ourselves) in the rescue or respect camp.