This is the sixth of a seven-part series, “Recruiting Alma the Younger” (see earlier essays exploring competing narratives of faith struggles, the pain of walking away, historical concerns, and The Church of Jesus Christ itself – along with the under-discussed effects of socio-political narratives on faith).
“I thought it was a bunch of mumbo jumbo. Crazy thing is… it’s true…All of it. It’s all true.”
– Han Solo, The Force Awakens
Upon stepping away from the Church of Jesus Christ several years ago, a friend of mine wrote publicly about his new feelings at Christmas time. In recounting a seasonal concert his family had attended, he remarked at how “transfixed” his young son was with the magic of the holiday event. Although this young boy still believed in Santa Claus, he no longer believed in God – following his parents’ lead.
After reflecting on that ironic contrast, my friend’s concluding take-away was this: “They’re just stories! Santa Claus. Baby Jesus. Elves and reindeer. Angels and wise men. Each as real or fictional as the other.”
No matter how engrossing any of these dramatic stories may be to us, he’s arguing that like Star Wars, they’re really just pleasant fictions – no matter what Hans Solo might think.
Each time I revisit the conclusion of this man I continue to love and respect, I feel the same thing: A sadness. For him. His sweet boy. And his whole family – especially during this season of the year.
If the whole thing – baby Jesus, angels, the cross and empty tomb – really was just “mumbo jumbo” or a captivating fable…would Christmas have any meaning at all – outside of, perhaps, a raw anthropological acknowledgment of inherent value in social bonding, human community and cultural myths that help all of that happen?
Transcendent joy? Peace on earth? Good will to men and women?
Some nice feel-good concepts, arising from enduring myths that would make Joseph Campbell proud.
As quickly as a child discovering who really left presents under the tree, the magic of this holiday season would vanish for me and many other believers.
But it doesn’t have to.
A Christmas restoration. Rather than mourning the loss of what this season used to mean, what if the opposite could happen? For those who have, for whatever reason, laid aside the sacred story of the season, what if this Christmas could be a time to pick it up again – putting themselves in a place to revive a fresh spark of legit holiday magic?
Whatever it is you now believe about Jesus, look again. Rather than a symbol of former faith, what if that Christ child could embody a faith reborn – and newly coming to life?
We miss you.
And want you home for the holiday – in every sense of the word.
Maybe the Church of Jesus Christ feels far from “home” now – or from the person you’ve come to see yourself as being.
That’s why I’ve asked for the chance to make my best pitch in this series of essays – trying to express what’s been on my heart to share with this friend and other loved ones who find themselves in similar places of resistance, skepticism and sometimes outright hostility towards their former family of faith.
Thank you so much for hearing me out. To all who have – however challenging it may have sometimes been – I hope the text raised new insights and possibilities you hadn’t fully considered in your journey away from the Church of Jesus Christ. Maybe, I’ve thought, if you were open to re-seeing a few things differently, you might approach both your past and this current moment with fresh eyes.
Or maybe you’ve been prone to do as We the People are wont to do these days – writing off views that feel threatening or uncomfortable with knee-jerk automaticity. Compared with hearing me out and engaging some of the arguments I raise, how much easier to just call me “judgmental” and be done with it?
Just the idea that someone would want to persuade you to see fundamental questions about your life, your identity, and your future so differently – even that can be taken as inherently offensive. After all, why can’t you all just respect my truth and chosen path?
More and more, I’ve heard people insisting that their story is “sacred” – and ought to be respected as somehow inherently beautiful and good.
I don’t believe that. Although it’s true sacred influences can be found shaping most people’s stories in beautiful ways, when taken as a whole, the larger trajectory of my story or yours is not inherently good or inspired. And especially when life stories are shared publicly, they need to remain open to scrutiny, critique and push-back. In my view, if we say otherwise, we’ve started to slide into dangerous territory.
Honest questions are what helps minds and hearts expand – as evident in this faith’s earliest beginnings. I’m personally convinced that accusing, suspicion-drenched questioning, by contrast, can do the reverse – pushing any of us away from goodness and truth we might otherwise have embraced, and certainly from people reminding us of any of that.
If you’re feeling an impulse to write me off, I hope you’ll resist the temptation. And consider another possibility.
That I’m actually right about this.
The angel question. At a recent dinner with friends who have stepped away from the Church, I posed this question: If, at your bedside tonight, an angel showed up and told you with the full majesty of a heavenly visitor that you’ve been mistaken in your conclusions about the Church of Jesus Christ, what would you do?
It sounds like an obvious thought experiment with an obvious conclusion. Not so fast! While the woman admitted she’d have to seriously reconsider, her husband said (after joking he’d want someone to take him to a hospital immediately), that he’d tell the angel essentially, “sorry, I don’t put my trust in external authorities to guide me anymore.”
For me, this imagined scenario reveals something important: Are we even open to being wrong anymore? And if there’s new truth beyond what we can now see, are we in a place to receive it?
Are you? Am I?
Good questions for all of us.
Christmas stirrings. My answer is yes, by the way. If that angel showed up at my bedside tonight, I would have to think long and hard about why I felt so much peace and joy about things that turned out to be mistaken.
I’m not anticipating that visit, though. Because I’ve been visited on so many other occasions by a still, but discernible and thrilling presence reassuring otherwise.
Maybe you’ve felt a remnant flash of sweetness in one of these essays, right in the middle of the discomfort – feeling perhaps a rush of hope that I might actually be on to something here.
And if so, maybe you can bring yourself to consider having legitimately misunderstood some important realities – which could make this whole thing reversible after all.
Imagine, once more, what that could mean – for you and for your family right now…knowing this wasn’t just a “story” anymore – the next in a line-up of sentimental Hallmark seasonal shows.
Not that. Something more.
A Christ that lives – and not just in the manger.
A Christ that comes – and not just to the ancient lands.
And not just to the Prophet Joseph Smith.
To us. To you and I.
Not just decades into the future. But in our lifetime.
The Spirit has borne witness to me that, as President Russel M. Nelson has consistently testified in recent years, ours is the privilege of preparing for His personal return to earth.
“My dwelling place also will be with them; and I will be their God, and they will be My people.” (Ezekiel 37:27)
“And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
That sounds like crazy talk to some. But Christians the world-over believe it quite literally.
And sense it drawing near.
That is part of my motivation in this whole series – to help you prepare for what is coming.
To propose a healing of whatever faith wounds you might have, to revisit narratives and conclusions you may have taken for granted about church history, and ways you’ve made sense of your own personal discomfort since walking away. I’ve also plead with you to push back against socio-political narratives of identity and love that seem to function so effectively as a “veil of unbelief” making it almost impossible for some to conceive of being a happy Latter-day Saint again (barring wholesale doctrinal revision in line with social justice mandates).
None of this, by the way, presumes this pathway back is somehow uniform or easy – any more than patterns of departure are monolithic. If you’ve felt I’ve minimized your own experience in any way, please forgive me – and tell me what I missed. There’s only so much 7 way-too-long essays can accomplish!
Even so, this represents my best attempt to paint a bigger picture that would allow for a more honest and productive conversation about all of these important questions.
The whole picture. One of my old neighbors worked as a defense attorney for men on death row. In explaining the nature of his work, he acknowledged how easy it can be in the criminal justice system to allow a single troubling (and often uncharacteristic) moment to define someone’s entire life and value. Is that ever truly fair?
His work consequently focused, in large part, on telling the broader story of a convicted criminal; the narrative within which that single, confusing moment becomes more understandable – e.g., past history of being severely abused as a child comes to light. In this larger narrative arc, one can then see more of the humanity, confusion and suffering in the backdrop, which invites more empathy and compassion for the condemned.
It’s good that we have people willing to stand by the side of incarcerated individuals and advocate for them, given how quickly their voices can be dismissed. Indeed, we see more examples of public condemnation writing off (even innocent) individuals as wholly undeserving of any kind of future redemption – with remarkably absolute levels of conviction that the full truth about that person is known.
This happens to people living. And it happens to people long deceased too.
Retrospective character assassination. While people on death row can at least open their mouths to speak, accusations levelled against historical figures don’t allow similar redress. Once a founding father is accused of racism on campus these days, sometimes that’s all that needs to be said. When are we taking down the Jefferson statue?
Which brings us to Joseph Smith, a man whose young life was ended by mob assassination in Carthage, Illinois.
Since then, great evil has been spoken about him – just as an angel warned – bringing to pass a second kind of mob assassination of his character, against which he likewise cannot defend himself.
As a result, it’s common to hear former members speak with sadness and striking certitude about having discovered “the truth” about this man’s past. Despite the fact that past events in question are very complex (yes, even more complex than we have often acknowledged as a faith community), the dark version of this past history is often remarkably simple.
After embracing this kind of an accusing historical narrative, some of my own dear friends speak of feeling crushed – “Oh, how I loved Joseph.”
You still can!
It’s true that it can be hard to wrap your head around some of what happened, especially given some of the larger trends in society today that influence our thinking unawares. For instance, immersed as we are in a sexualized society, it’s difficult for many to even conceive of an explanation for plural marriage that doesn’t revolve almost entirely around the simple satiation of sexual appetite through religious mandate.
That’s not the only – or most honest – way to make sense of the history, however. A closer look reveals that it not only does not fit the pattern of sexual philandering – but also profoundly contradict it – as reflected in the Church’s summary essay on the topic, the new Saints History and the good work of other historians.
That doesn’t mean we understand this history perfectly. None of us can or will.
But we are seeing it more clearly – and anticipating a day when we will understand it more fully.
Maybe that means having a little more humility – on all sides. I repeat what I said in an earlier essay: After literally thousands of pages of grand jury testimony and evidence compiled about Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri by a white policeman, wide disagreements still exist on what truly happened.
How then, can we expect to have fragments of evidence establish a final conclusion in these matters, by itself?
The truth we end up living by must come – as it has for me – from the judgment of our own hearts and minds before God. If you think Joseph a deceiver or a philanderer, you cannot blame that on the historical record. You must take responsibility for, first, choosing to dismiss his own first-person accounts (and thousands of others witnessing to his work and character), while accepting face-value the critics who denounce him. Similarly, you are free to choose to embrace a small handful of accusations written by his enemies, while discounting hundreds of pages of text Joseph helped bring to light which millions attest to having brought greater peace and joy into their lives.
This is precisely what you will one day need to take responsibility for: whatever narrative you have decided to embrace of these important matters.
That’s on you. And me too.
Taken from us. If that is the path and narrative and interpretation you choose, we will love you all the same. But don’t expect us to love your path.
As I told a dear friend of mine who stepped away recently:
Our friendship used to be a source of great inspiration, affection, tenderness, and intimacy. On so many occasions, I came away from time with you taught, uplifted, and feeling deeply loved.
Then, seemingly all of a sudden, it was gone. And you wanted little to do with me, and what we used to talk about as precious…Texts, emails, letters – no matter how heartfelt – seemed to mean little anymore to you, going ignored, and unreturned.
Can you understand why this outcome has been hard to simply embrace and accept? If someone had jumped out of a black sedan, shoved a bag over your head, and driven you to some remote location where people who had loved you couldn’t see you anymore, the effect wouldn’t have been any more dramatic.
That’s how it feels, and how it has felt – at least to me. So, you’ll forgive me if I can’t help but still mourn the loss of so much that was precious. I miss you. And if you continue to insist on keeping your distance long into the future, that will never change for me.
We will love you forever. But, once again, don’t be surprised if we struggle to celebrate the life course you are on – or pretend like it’s all the same to us.
And like Liam Neeson in the Taken movie series, we’re won’t likely ever be able to give up trying, hoping, and wanting to bring you home either.
Don’t take that metaphor too far, though…we may, indeed have, a “very particular set of skills” – but not to hurt anyone. Only to try and help free people currently trapped in patterns sapping their infinite potential as sons and daughters of God.
Maybe one day, you might even say, like this man’s daughter, “you came for me!”
Hearts growing warm again. I began this series speaking about Dan Reynolds and Tyler Glenn – two men who used to serve in the same mission in Oklahoma.
Although they are popular stars now, they were once humble missionaries – two among the many of us who used to sit in front of investigators and say, “I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun…”
They too, used to help people recognize the subtle sweetness of the Spirit when it came – and help guide along these new children of Christ after a fresh rebirth in their own lives.
As distant as all that might feel to you today, please hear me out:
Because you can find it again. I know that from experience. I know hearts can melt, because mine has! I lived for years in brooding despondency, deep fear and aching regret. This was “just how life is.” But, thanks to a long series of tender mercies and His stubborn insistence to not give up on me in my own hardness, I’ve now found more joy and peace in my life than ever before.
That’s what makes me want to share this all. And that’s why I can say with conviction that more than simply regaining your “first love,” this passion can burn brighter and fiercer in your heart than ever before (see Alma, Paul, C.S. Lewis…).
In terms of his feelings about faith, our larger society seems to be going in the other direction fast. Jesus testified that in the last days “the love of many shall wax [grow] cold.”
If that’s how your heart feels towards us now – your former family of faith – once again, it doesn’t have to stay that way. Like a marriage that comes back to life – back from the brink – so can your faith.
The Spirit can show you the way, moment by moment, if you’re open to pausing enough to listen again. That, of course, means treating those internal impressions – the feelings deep in your gut, most accessible in your most quiet times – as legitimate and meaningful. And pushing back on anyone saying otherwise.
In other words: those feelings of peace do matter – and the lack of peace does too.
What you’re not being invited to do. Let’s be clear, though: No one is asking you to walk away from inspired truth and goodness you have found outside the Church (yes, there is a lot of it!) Neither is this an invitation to embrace leadership or the Church of Jesus Christ itself as infallible – or to ignore meaningful questions still on your heart. No one has ever made any of those requests.
On the contrary, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were both clear about the importance of embracing truth wherever it is found. If you’ve found something beautiful and truly good, bring it back to enrich your fellowship with the Saints.
And remember that sincere differences of opinion can exist between people who trust each other to be doing the best they can. To illustrate, I’ve spent years studying concerning short-term and long-term outcomes associated with antidepressant treatment. So, I’ve naturally been uneasy when leaders have occasionally hinted that God expects members to embrace treatment like this as a demonstration of faith.
Honest disagreements exist on that issue and many others. But that doesn’t mean one side cares more than the other – or is more thoughtful. In this case, we’re all doing the best we can to reduce depression and suicide. Even seemingly obvious realities like that, however, can become obscured when chronic anger or suspicion takes over.
When questions remain, then, let’s make space for them – but a certain kind of space. Generous. Humble. Assuming the best. In this way, questions (some of which may remain for a long time) won’t subvert the cultivation of new faith – or renewed relationships together.
The force awakens. One of the slogans of the gay rights movement is “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are”. The appeal is used on “National Coming Out Day” to encourage youth and adults to embrace a new identity – even if it means having to reject other things they used to believe about themselves and their future.
Those who identify as LGBT+ are obviously not the only ones too-often convinced of a pressing need to distance themselves from the Church of Jesus Christ. For a variety of other reasons, wonderful, amazing people have been persuaded to step away, walk away, and mail away their membership with a form they printed off from some helpful website.
Your feelings were real, and your concerns understandable, when you made your choice to step away.
And now, having felt what you were feeling – and followed those feelings away – I’m inviting you to make another choice. To breathe deep and look again. To clear the air of misunderstandings that have messed with you for too long and prayerfully consider taking up the restored gospel again with fresh eyes and heart.
If that possibility doesn’t excite you right now (or maybe even outright annoys you) don’t be surprised. It’s possible to lose interest in even the sweetest spiritual food in the world, so in this case, don’t just follow your hunger (or lack thereof).
Depending on what you do next, it can come back. Be patient. And consider this invitation from President Nelson earlier this year:
Pour out your heart to God. Ask Him if these things are true. Make time to study His words. Really study!…If you are not sure you even believe in God, start there. Understand that in the absence of experiences with God, one can doubt the existence of God. So, put yourself in a position to begin having experiences with Him. Humble yourself. Pray to have eyes to see God’s hand in your life and in the world around you. Ask Him to tell you if He is really there—if He knows you. Ask Him how He feels about you. And then listen.
Imagine if you could once again have a fresh witness of these things – and what that could really mean.
Even immediately. While yes, it might be a longer process, it might take less time than you think to feel the gospel fresh.
While this may still feel hard to fathom, even ridiculous, I’ve hoped these essays would make it clear how wide-open the door really is for you to come back.
Yes, the crazy thing is… it’s true…All of it.
The prophet Joseph. The Book of Mormon. The ordinances and covenants.
It’s all true.
I know it.
Joseph saw what he said he saw.
I’ve prayed and fasted to know for myself these things.
And you can too.
So, I say to you, dear reader: Come back, oh come back, wherever you are.
The aim here has not been simply to “defend” the Church – but to get you back in it!
Rather than patching together an angsty, barely-holding on attempt to come back, it’s a profound, and sweet reconciliation I’m going for – and hoping for you.
So, yes, let’s go out and enjoy Star Wars and other rousing cultural fables. But in a few days, let’s gather to celebrate not just a community myth designed to bring people together.
Let’s celebrate the redemption of the world.
Born in a manger.
 Of course, many who step away from the Church of Jesus Christ still believe in the Savior in some way.
 To raise such questions is not to discount goodness, truth (and yes, inspired influence) in others’ lives. For instance, nothing that I’ve said questions that there is happiness or truth in experiences outside of the Church. I have found remarkable goodness and insight in voices outside of the Church of Jesus Christ as well. This is not about leaving any of that behind, but rather, perhaps combining happiness-and-truth in and out of the Church into one great whole.
 Reversing isn’t the same thing as rejecting other goodness you’ve found.
 And by “honest,” by now, you know I mean not just talking directly about messy historical or doctrinal issues – but also acknowledging the competing narratives we must decide between to make sense of these same issues. In the absence of the latter, the former can become as agenda-driven, and selectively focused as any marketing campaign anywhere.
 Which is why this is different from:
- “I’ll stay close to the Church to help it change and realize the truth I know so clearly.”
- Or “Let’s talk about how it’s possible for prophets to make super big mistakes, and still be good people.”