Living Imperfectly

[ 12 ] Comments

by Paul

(CC) Sleepwalking by Kit

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.

This is not the truck; ours looked a little worse.

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.

(CC) Rob Popofatticus

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.

About Paul

Paul was a convert to the church with his parents and siblings when he was a child, and therefore has the great blessing of having some of his formative years in the church while still remembering his family’s conversion experience. He is the father of seven and husband to his lovely wife. He served an LDS mission in Germany and has lived in Latin America and twice in Asia for his employer; now he lives with his lovely wife and youngest two children in the Midwestern US. Prior to earning his MBA, Paul also earned degrees in English and Theatre History. He also blogs at A Latter-day Voice (see the link below -- in "Our Authors Elsewhere" section at the bottom of the page) where he writes, as he does here, of his own experience as a Latter-day Saint. He does not speak for the church but will speak in favor of it.

12 Responses to Living Imperfectly

  1. Jan says:

    Being a parent is hard. We all make mistakes and have regrets over reactive moments. And it’s not always easy to apologize to a child, or a spouse. In some ways it seems easier to apologize to Heavenly Father, because we tend to do it so often and go on with our lives. But as we know, apologizing is not repentance. Making changes in our personal lives and in how we treat others in the long term is a better step in the right direction. But ultimately, turning the episode inward and having deep faith that Jesus Christ will make all things right in the end, after we change, is what we should seek after. I think humbling ourselves and apologizing to our family members is an opportunity for us to offer our open hearts to Heavenly Father so he can send down His mercy to spread its arms around all of us. And in due time, he does. It’s not about parent and child. It’s about parent, God, and child.

    • Paul says:

      Jan, thanks for your comment. It’s interesting. You write it’s not easy to apologize to our children or spouse. I think sometimes it’s too easy to do so, without the changes necessary to make that apology real. That is, it’s easy to say we’re sorry, but not so easy to mean it, and show it.

      For me it was only when I really (and finally) also apologized to my Father in Heaven that I began to change. In the end, though, you’re right: it’s about parent, God and child.

  2. Lisa S says:

    Thank you for this post. I am in tears as I write this because the Lord has truly blessed me with two girls who have strong testimonies. I am so grateful. One nears her 1/2 way mark on her mission in a week, and my 19 year old is preparing her papers now. Very often when they were young I lost my cool when trying to parent them. I found myself apologizing to them when I realized that I blew it in my efforts for them to see my point of view. I did always try and have open discussion with them about I say far so good, because I know that things can change even after being an RM. I am the RS president right now, and a few women in my ward have children that are not attending now. It is really difficult for me to know what they are going through because I haven’t experienced it. My heart aches for all parents who go through this.

  3. Paul says:

    Lisa, it’s interesting that you should mention your interaction with the sisters in your Relief Society. Even as I wondered how I could serve given where my boys were, I learned later that I had members who were able to speak to me about their children precisely because I did have boys in that boat. In Elder Maxwell’s biography he includes a bit of personal revelation he received regarding his leukemia (and I’m paraphrasing here): ‘I have given you this disease that you might teach with authenticity.’

    All of our experiences work to our good, and allow us to teach and lift others. We may not have exactly the experiences that those we serve have had, but there is something in us that allows us to lift and strengthen others.

  4. Sarah says:

    The way I was raised have had some profound negative affects on the way I parent today. I battle with a harsh and lightning-fast temper that truly breaks my heart when I lash out at my kids. I am ashamed of my behaviour, deeply and truly, and yet I struggle to apply the atonement and fully change myself in this regard.

    My goal is to change, but to also be open with my kids in my struggle to change. They know that I try to repent of my sins and I try to apologise quickly and completely. I hope that I can help them to avoid the pitfalls that I experience and break the cycle….

    I love the parent-child-God comment. I need to incorporate that into my life.

    • Paul says:

      Sarah I have had periods in which I’ve had a hair-trigger temper. I eoorked specifically with a therapist to help me find time between an inciting event and my reaction. Maybe I will do apostle on that sometime. The exercises helped me overcome a very sensitive fight or flight reflex (I leaned toward fight….) and has helped make life better for me and the ones I love.

  5. loraine says:

    Thankyou Paul, this is the real stuff. Our eldest married an atheist in an anglican church this summer. Our parents, who had been high anglicans indifferent to the spiritual would have loved the event. It would have been nice to have been able to please them just the once had they still been around. Perhaps they took pleasure in the event from beyond the veil.

    I fear that we often hide the faults of our souls behind the gospel. Our children see and hear that and challenge us to access a more authentic self. In my experience that’s a very painful process.

    I have ceased to be declaritive about the gospel. I believe that I received personal revelation telling me to teach only by example-that the time for teaching by precept was past.

    This was counter to what I was actually being taught at the time and against the grain within my ward and stake. But it has helped us to begin to separate out the gospel and our relationship-I think this is a fundamental issue when we are trying to create a space for testimony in our children’s experience. The anger needs to go where it belongs-towards the parent-rather than towards the gospel. Often our children experience their anger with their parents as if it is anger against their God.

    I think the spirit truly teaches us, but it’s an uncomfortable business,and has nothing to do with self gratification, even if that gratification appears to be a righteous desire. I’m learning little by little to let go of myself and lay down my desires for my children and allow them to exercise their own agency. The greatest difficulties are when we have to live with children whose behaviour affects both ourselves and their siblings.

    I am impressed by the fact that our reactions however inadequate are part of the process. I like to think that this will all be part of a narrative in which I can help my children and we can all help each other with compassion and acceptance for who we are.

    I’m beginning to realise that it is not my place to judge my children and that their walk with God is their own.

    It’s easy to be wise after the events, but I guess that is what the events are for. I’d love to hear a talk like your story from the pulpit at general conference. Oh the hearts that could be healed.

    • Paul says:

      I love this sentence of yours: It’s easy to be wise after events, but I guess that is what the events are for.


      And good for you for allowing your kids to find their way. I am hopeful that Heavenly Father is patient with all of us as we find our way.

  6. Anne says:

    I wonder if you have any idea how encouraging this post is . . .

  7. Handsfullmom says:

    Thank you for your courage in sharing this. It touched me.

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