You’d never guess that Michael McLean, beloved storyteller and song writer, who has performed Forgotten Carols for 29 years, once faced a debilitating faith crisis. He has been as much a part of the holiday season for many Latter-day Saints as fireplaces and tree lights.
Even this year when COVID-19 made audiences in large venues impossible, instead of taking a hiatus for the season, he followed the lead of what Disney+ did with Hamilton, and filmed the production, which you still shouldn’t miss. Maybe, as January comes with heavy sighs, we need it more than ever. It is still playing in theaters and is available in both streaming and DVD formats. Click here https://forgottencarols.com/ to learn how to watch it.
It’s a good thing Michael was on film this year, instead of stage, because smack dab, in the middle of what would have been a slam of performances any other year, he and his family got COVID, and he ended up in the hospital struggling to recover.
What is intriguing is that, starting last year, Forgotten Carols was already reworked into something that Michael sees as more profound, informed by what he learned from his deepened faith and understanding that came from his spiritual crisis.
“When I talked about changing the script, people on my production team said, “You’re nuts.” You don’t mess with people’s traditions. It’s not broken. Don’t fix it.”
I’ll let Michael tell his story:
“Here’s what resounds to me. Over the thirty years I’ve been telling Forgotten Carols, some of it was during my 9-year-long faith crisis period. I was just hanging on with my fingernails. Doing the Forgotten Carols and singing those songs in front of people every night, re-anchored me into the quest. I was asking myself, ‘Do I really have a relationship with Jesus, or have I just borrowed my idea of Jesus from whoever has influenced me?’ Do I have any idea who that real Jesus is and why won’t He talk to me?’”
That was the problem for Michael. The heavens seemed closed to him, as if made of brass.
He said, “I read Mother Theresa’s book and learn that for 49 years she feels that same way. She can’t tell anybody. She doesn’t want to hurt anybody’s faith, but she asks people she confesses to, ‘How come Jesus quit loving me? I can’t get an answer to my prayer, and it was an answer to my prayer that led me to be a nun in the first place.’
“As I am going through this horrible ordeal, I had a dream where Mother Theresa came to me and sang. It was weird. In my dream, Mother Theresa is singing her life to an audience in an off-Broadway theater, and I am accompanying her on stage and I somehow, know these songs that she is singing, about her challenges, and about her whole faith trip, and why she didn’t quit. Why didn’t just throw in the towel and tell everybody this is stupid.
“This is what she was singing:
“I choose to pray to one who doesn’t hear me.
I choose to wait for love that He conceals.
And though God has chosen for now, not to be near me.
I’m keeping promises my heart no longer feels.
“I wake up after this dream and write it down, and I am sobbing, because my dream has nothing to do with Mother Theresa. It has to do with me. I am at a point, after two years when the heavens seem shut to me, having to decide am I in or out?
“It wasn’t because I was struggling with church things.
“I was asking, ‘Are you really there and was I kidding myself all these times I thought I felt the Spirit? It was devastating, and so I had this kind of moment where I had to decide. Am I going to commit to keep the promises I have not felt for two years, or am I going to throw in the towel? So, I knelt down and had this prayer moment that was the most sacred thing I’d ever done because it was a different kind of covenant making. You make all kinds of promises when you feel great. I was suddenly offering a prayer, ‘I don’t know why you won’t talk to me, but here’s the deal, as of this moment, I am not going to moan to you anymore about why you won’t talk to me. I’m going to trust you. I don’t know when this is going to end. I’m going to show up and shut up. I am committed to trust you.’
“This is a painful confession, but in the back of my mind I am thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a really good prayer. This will be a great story in the Ensign. Six or seven weeks and this will all be done. I can pat myself on the back and move on and live happily ever after. What I didn’t realize is that it would be six or seven more years. I didn’t realize that it would get harder.
“The thing that I had that kept me focused that led ultimately to the remarkable blessing and answer to my nine-year quest, is that every Christmas, because of my commitment to show up and do what I could, I’d sing these songs that I had written so many years before and each night, I’d get a little glimpse of something that I hadn’t seen before. I would think, it’s more like this, than like that. Maybe I misunderstood it. Or maybe I only partially got it. The great gift of that story for all those years, is that it kept me focused on what mattered.
“Earlier on, my take on this character I was playing, who was John the Beloved, but never really told anybody he was John the Beloved–but kind of noodled around it–made for great entertainment. Basically, I thought that somebody, who knew Jesus and been around for all these years, had picked this girl out and he’s going to set her straight. He’s going to help her get a testimony. That’s what he does. He’ll be this charming guy with a story and a song, be wonderful and lovable, but he had no character arc. He was there to say, that he had come to help people to find their testimony.
“Then, with this new version, this is a guy who’s got dementia. Sometimes he’s right on, and sometimes he forgets your name. He doesn’t have all the answers for everything. He just knows he’s supposed to follow the Spirit—just commit himself, no matter how much dementia he’s had, no matter how much he’s fallen apart. That commitment never goes away. He says, ‘I’m just going to trust the Lord.’
“There’s that moment when you are writing and writing, and then you rewrite, and there’s that moment when you know, that’s it. Finally, I thought, after 29 years, this is the way this story is meant to be told that I couldn’t have told until I had experiences that led me here.
“At the moment that I got that right, it’s the only moment in my lifetime that it would have worked to bring to a theater. Without COVID, it wouldn’t be on a big screen. You can’t put this in a movie theater because you can’t compete with Pixar and Marvel and the Avengers. Figure out some other way to get this to people.
“We were able to give the experience to more people for less money than I ever could have possibly reached in my life.
“I’m at peace and part of that peace is what I learned about Jesus from the journey.
“When I was making movies for the Church, I thought that I was supposed to use my gifts to tell people how to straighten up. We have to teach you how to come unto Christ and don’t do anything to offend the Spirit.
“I thought the reason Jesus wouldn’t talk to me is because I hadn’t worked hard enough. I hadn’t paid enough of a price. I didn’t know what I’d done, but the Lord doesn’t leave you alone like this unless it is your fault. He’s promised that He’ll always be there, and if you are not feeling it, it’s all on you.
“The first thing that I discovered is that Jesus is in all of it. He wasn’t waiting for me to accomplish some heroic thing on my own first. You think you’re the enemy to God, and unless you figure this all out–how to be good enough–you are always going to be the enemy. You have to understand the wretch that you are. What I found out is that He came to heal me. He came to heal the broken woundedness and that His journey with me is not waiting to see if I trip and fall and quickly repent and do everything just the way I was supposed to, but that He was so deeply committed to helping me heal that I didn’t have to be afraid.
“One of the things that so is powerful to me about the ending of Forgotten Carols is when Constance hasn’t been able to pray for 20 years, because every time she prayed, something awful happened. She asks this question, ‘If I let you in, Jesus, will you leave me too? My Dad died and left me and I prayed for him. My Mom died and left me and I prayed for her. Even John the Beloved, who has been my patient, he left me. But if I let you in, will you leave me too? Then she gets her answer, and the great answer is words that she herself had spoken in the Nativity play. Her words are a child’s version of ‘Fear not’. Her words are ‘Don’t be so scared. That’s why Jesus came. Don’t be so scared.’
“This sense of not trying to impress the Lord so that I can have Him love me just a little bit more than anybody else. No. It has been this discovery of how committed He is to helping me get through this.
“One of the great things that my son Jeff told me, who is a recovering addict, is that ‘Dad, my discovery is that even in the worst of it He was there. He was in it with me. He understood. He got it. It wasn’t like I’ll let you feel my Spirit to help you through this difficulty once you have proven you are not a drug addict, once you have courageously become worthy to come unto me. He said, ‘Dad He’s in all of it. He’s in all of it.’
“It’s a recognition of one of those things that I got wrong in my thinking. John the Beloved doesn’t come to figure out to how to straighten her out. He just feels that there’s something he’s supposed to share with her, and he’s not exactly sure how it is going to turn out, but the reason he’s able to do his mission is that every day he goes to the Lord recognizing his need for Him and recognizing that he doesn’t have it all figured out but realizing that he has trust in the one who has come to heal us.
“Here’s the most revealing part of this. I added a new song to the show that has never been there before. I had written it one way, and as I was recording the film, I changed it on the spot. It is where John is explaining his mission in a song. John said, “I was going to be here to help people remember Jesus, but they forget Him all the time. That spirit is great around the fire and around the tree, but six months later are you going to remember that you said you’d keep that spirit all year long?”
“There’s a line in the song that goes like this:
“‘But he who came to save us for all eternity
Has not forgotten those who need his mercy to be free.’
“While I am there, I get this feeling and change it on the spot to this:
“’He who came to claim us for all eternity
Has not forgotten those who need his healing charity
And though the number’s greater than the sands upon the sea.
There is no time of year that He’s forgotten you or me.’
Michael said, “So with this feeling that my Savior and Redeemer has come to heal me, that He has come to claim me, I am just changed. I don’t even know how to talk about it without it sounding pretentious.
“I feel so grateful that I know what my relationship with the Savior is and who He is in a way that I hadn’t ever seen before. It isn’t like, now I have got it. It just opens up this opportunity that every day I get a chance to try and let Him just teach me more. It is exciting and sweet and I feel way less compelled to use my talents to go build the kingdom and just love people with faith crises.”