The second time I was called as bishop, my oldest son had just turned 18. The day I was sustained was his last day to attend church. He had not been a regular attender for some time by then. His next younger brother, who had been very active in the church, and had served as president of his deacon and teachers’ quorums was also fading fast in his commitment to church.
When the call came to serve, I wondered how I could be a bishop given the flux in activity among my kids. (Son #3 would follow his older brothers down the path of inactivity by the time he was sixteen, three years into my term of service.) And it was not just their lack of attendance. They each in their own time began cultivating habits of lifestyle that opposed what the church — and their mother and I — had taught them over the years.
I thought often of the counsel to Frederick G. Williams and Sidney Rigdon to set their houses in order. I wondered often in my head and in my heart and in my prayers how I could be a bishop given what was going on at home. When I queried him in my monthly stewardship interviews, my stake president reassured me. And, despite my concerns about my family, I also knew in my heart of hearts that the Lord had called me to serve. I’d had several very specific spiritual witnesses of that truth.
My relationship with my oldest son had been suffering for some time. He became an increasingly angry young man as he grew in adolescence. When we moved back to the US from an overseas assignment in Latin America, we finally got him into counseling and learned that he suffered from clinical depression. But because he was 17, no part of his therapy could be shared with us without his permission, which he did not grant at the time.
The September after my call, my son went away to college about a hundred miles from our home. I remember getting a phone call one morning that Fall. He’d come home without my knowing it and stayed in our basement. He borrowed his brother’s truck (which we’d purchased to help him commute to seminary and school – a mistake I may discuss in another post someday) and totaled it. He was standing in an intersection, getting a ticket from a cop and watching the bent truck be loaded onto a flatbed.
I was furious and told him so. I told him I did not want to see him or talk to him. He must find his own way back to school, and he was not to come home again without my permission. Furthermore, he could forget about the computer I had planned to purchase for him. Frankly, there is nothing completely unreasonable about anything I told him, except the way I delivered the message. When I hung up the phone, I was panting, my heart was racing and my face was flushed. I had reproved him all right, but with the sharpness of an acid. And the spirit had nothing to do with what I said and did.
A week or so later, feeling guilty about the way I had treated him, I wrote him a long letter. In it I apologized for speaking to him the way I did, and for leaving him alone to deal with his mess. (In retrospect, I don’t think it was bad to leave him alone to deal with his mess; after all it was his mess. But there is no question that I had handled things badly. All he knew was that I was angry.)
I then wrote eloquently about his need to allow the Savior into his life, his need to accept the blessings of the atonement, and his need to pull it together. I talked about how the choices he was making would affect his whole life, and how choosing the gospel could be a great blessing to him. He needed the atonement, and he should embrace it.
During the next two years, he did not seem to me to embrace the atonement. He had a number of academic complications that resulted in his taking a year off school, a hiatus I was certain he could have – and should have – avoided. But, to his credit, he worked during his year off, and he got himself readmitted to school. And upon his return to school, he actually did remarkably well.
Two years (almost to the day) of my first “atonement” letter to him, I was meeting with a couple working through some issues. It was our final meeting; we all had felt strongly that they had done what they needed to do to return to full fellowship, and we felt the spiritual confirmation of that fact, as well. The brother pointed out that it happened to be Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement.
As I drove home from the chapel that evening, I reflected on that first letter I had written. I went home and found my copy, and I was astounded at what I had written. What I had claimed to have done out of love was instead another attempt to guilt my son into changing his ways. My invoking the atonement was a feeble attempt on my part to appeal to authority that my son did not recognize.
I sat down and wrote another letter to my son. In this one, I congratulated him on the choices that he had recently made. I told him I was proud of his decisions that allowed him to go back to school and to do well there. I was impressed with his work ethic and his desire to earn as much of his own way as he could.
And then I taught him a different lesson about the atonement. I made clear that I did believe his life could be better if he allowed the Savior in it, but I acknowledged that only he could make that choice. I apologized for my earlier diatribe and admitted that even as I wrote the first letter, it was I who needed the blessings of the atonement in my life. I was wrong in the way I had spoken to him that fall morning two years earlier. And I was wrong when I had written the letter chastising him. I knew that I needed to change things about me, and I hoped those changes would help our relationship going forward.
My son never mentioned that letter to me directly, but his therapist reported that he had discussed it with her, and that it had great meaning for him. Later, when my second son was struggling to navigate perilous waters in his life, my oldest mentioned the letters I’d written him and he wondered if I had written any letters like that to his brother. He thought they might help.
In truth, that second atonement letter was just the very beginning of a long, long road that I am still walking – a road that hopefully will lead me to a life that is less imperfect than it has been. I am grateful, however, for the atonement which allows me to be rescued from my imperfections.
Discussions of repentance are extremely personal, but if there is some application of the atonement in your life that you feel you can share, it may help to lift the hands that hang down and offer comfort to those who stand in need of comfort.