Yearning to Return


A recently returned member reflects on the Lord’s redemptive love.

My stake president suggests that I not attend sacrament meeting on the Sunday when I am to be released as a bishop. He fears that he and I might not be able to control our emotions.

I don’t know how to react. I can’t miss sacrament meeting! It isn’t that I am unwilling to miss my release after three years as bishop—I just can’t miss sacrament meeting. Seeing the Saints. Feeling the Spirit. Being where I belong. I cannot voluntarily miss it.

The stake presidency and high councilors each in turn embrace me. The embraces are strong, sincere, and unrushed. The words spoken are kind, gentle, and loving. The tears are warm and unabashed. Some of the embraces are extended by the inability to find the right words, the answers, the help. I feel limp and tired. But I also feel the fire of pure priesthood brotherhood. The feeling is wonderful—if only the occasion were different …

Afterward, as I meet with the stake president alone in his office, he asks if I have any questions. I have only one. How soon will he entertain a request for my readmission to the Church?

It is funny that some words are so painful. As I visit with him, I cannot say the “E” word—excommunication. It hurts too deeply. I can say that my membership in the Church has been taken away. But I cannot say the “E” word.

When you have been a bishop and seminary teacher in a small town, everyone in town knows about your trouble. Sitting in Sunday School, I feel a need to hide. It must look ridiculous for a full-grown adult to try to hide behind his scriptures. But the inevitable happens one Sunday during class. The teacher calls on me to offer prayer. A sedate body can become blazing hot, and a normally articulate person can become a stutterer in an instant. The teacher intended no harm. He had just forgotten that I am not to offer a public prayer. I live with fear. When will I be humiliated again?

Many kind people come to visit. It is good to know that people care. But what can I say—“I know you thought I was a decent human being, but I can’t quite explain how I got here”?

How did I get here? That is the most persistent and troublesome question. All my life I had been earnest about the Church and the gospel. I thought I was trying with all my might to be a good Latter-day Saint. Am I really, at heart, evil? Is it a delusion to think that I am a normal person? Is there any hope for me?

In a small town, no one can hide. Walking to town or shopping at the grocery store, I worry that the pressure of a million tears will explode my eyes. My face feels like plaster, dead and expressionless. But as I pass the green beans, a gasp of pain escapes, and I hurriedly wipe my cheeks. People seem kind when they pass. But is Sister Thomas really glad to see me, or is her enthusiasm an effort to cover her horror?

Some people have said, “Serves him right. I always knew that he was no good.” Have I injured them? Why do some hate me? Can’t they feel pity for me? Can God rescue a soul as miserable as mine?

I am tempted to be bitter. To blame. To excuse. But that is a temptation with an ugly face. Though I am hurt deeply by a friend, the Lord gives me the power to forgive. I am thankful for his help. By nature I am too selfish, too weak to have forgiven such a painful injury.

There have probably not been a dozen Sundays in almost forty years that I have missed taking the sacrament. But now I feel that everyone is watching as I let it pass me by every week. One Sunday I forget and instinctively reach to partake. As I catch myself, I am swept with a gust of shame, confusion, and embarrassment. Suddenly I wish to be covered by a million mountains.

There must be thousands of reminders that I do not qualify for the most fundamental of blessings enjoyed by the Saints. It is surprising that a person can so badly miss raising his hand to sustain officers. May I always be grateful for the right to sustain. For the opportunity to substitute in Primary. For the blessing to testify in priesthood quorum.

I know about others who have been excommunicated. One felt a dark blackness envelop him immediately afterward. Another felt the Spirit dim gradually until it seemed that all was black. But I still feel the same warmth, the same divine caring, and the same heavenly tutoring that I rejoiced in as bishop. I wonder. If I feel the same now as I did then, maybe I have never felt the Spirit. Maybe it was and is an illusion.

But I know better. There really can be no question. Father in Heaven has given me sweet peace often. He has taught me often. It is real. As I sit in a Book of Mormon fireside, a new word comes to me. Certitude. A soul-filling certainty. Total confidence in His reality and in His church. But how can an “outsider” enjoy the blessings of the Spirit? I don’t know. But I am grateful.

Sometimes the burden is too much. I feel crushed by the shame and the hopelessness. But on just such occasions the doorbell rings and a troubled friend asks for help. I am rescued from self-destruction by service. Or in a normal conversation someone gives me a chance to testify. Oh! How I love to testify of the Lord! I feel His arms wrap around me as I testify that He is good and that He loves us.

During a casual visit, a good friend unexpectedly tells me of three qualities that he admires in me. His statements seem unrehearsed, sweet, true. And I feel that he has delivered kind solace from Father.

Other times as my soul cries out with a distressed “Why?” the Lord calms my soul and fills my mind with understanding. At such times, I cannot write the ideas as fast as He gives them to me. He teaches me about sacred covenants and the process of cleansing. I do not feel chastised or rebuked. I feel taught. I thank Him for his kindness. For His patience. For His love.

I served as a bishop. It is hard work. I think of it as being something of a delivery man for the Lord. Who could count delivering packages as dreaded labor if the packages are from Him and you see the joy that His packages of love and testimony and reassurance bring to people? The return is disproportionate to the labor: Doing His work! Bearing His message! Feeling His goodness! I remember miracles such as the woman who sat across the bishop’s desk from me telling of a life filled with sin and tragedy. I could not think of any comfort to offer her. I could not think of even a sliver of hope. But when the time came for me to counsel her, the Lord filled me with assurance, testimony, and specific counsel. I was more surprised at the counsel I gave her than she was! And I knew that it came from One who loves her. If only the Saints knew how the Lord periodically picks up his ordinary priesthood leaders and fills them with messages of peace, assurance, and truth! The job is demanding. But to experience that transcendent, sweet, loving, divine company is reward enough.

My family is a blessing. Sometimes when I am brim with hidden hurt, our youngest child, after studying my eyes, climbs into my lap and clings to me. My facade fools everyone except her. She brings angelic love from a pure heart.

But some occasions focus the pain. My son turns twelve, and I cannot ordain him. Our baby turns eight, and I cannot baptize her. The pain is unbearable! The anguish seems as wide as eternity. How can the children understand their father’s humiliation and still honor him? But the Lord has blessed me with a wife so good and so kind that the children need only follow her example. I thank Father in Heaven for a saintly family.

Some scriptures suddenly seem vitally important. The Lord spoke kind hope to the Samaritan woman at the well and to the woman taken in adultery. And He found more virtue in the tearful woman who anointed his feet in Simon’s house than He did in the accusing, pharisaical Simon. He rescued Alma the Younger. He redirected Saul of Tarsus. He offered hope to Corianton. Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s statement that “His relentless redemptiveness exceeds our recurring wrongs” brings needed peace.

The stake president visits me. “You’re doing well,” he says. “Don’t you feel hopeful now?”

No. I feel hurt and lost and sad and tragically foolish. But I do sometimes feel loved. I hope that the Lord’s love can reach past my persistent weakness and stubbornness and make something of me. It is strange that so many tearful hours can be sweet. But sometimes in the sadness I sense the message that we are strangers here, that He loves us, and that He is waiting at the gate for our return. It is a divine sadness. Sweet. Filled with the longing for home.

It has been almost three years. How I long to be a Latter-day Saint again. I do everything I know to do. I hope it is enough. I am probably more earnest now than I have ever been—determined that no vice sneak into my life.

I sit in the lodge. The family has been asleep for hours, but I cannot leave my spot overlooking the lake. I have been reading The Life of Christ. Farrar’s eloquence goes beyond words. His message resonates with praise for the Lord, our Savior. As I sit in the quiet of the empty lodge, the peace of His creation comforts me. I feel immeasurably sad. But I also feel His love.

On Friday I call the stake president. In a few days my mom and dad will be leaving for their second mission. Is it possible that, before they go … ? Not likely. It may be another year. But Saturday the letter comes.

My father baptizes me. Sweet Saints come from many miles away to be with us. The peace is serene. I feel more relaxed than I have felt in years. I feel clean. I am no more a stranger and a foreigner, but a fellowcitizen with the beloved Saints. (See Eph. 2:19.) I thank the Lord that He continues to bless and teach me. I thank Him for His love.

[illustration] Illustrated by Cary Henrie