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The Bonds of Love
The Story of a Hymn
Recently, I opened a storage box containing the scriptures that our children used to tote to church meetings and seminary growing up. Seeing their embossed names imprinted in gold or silver on the leather covers was nostalgic, but a little bittersweet. You see, two of our four adult sons are no longer a part of our faith. It was a moment emblematic of an ongoing anxiety common to many LDS parents today: how do we respond to or relate to our children who do not remain in the church?
Younger people leaving their childhood faith is not a trend exclusive to Latter-day Saints; churches at large are diminishing, with the rising generation less interested in formal religion. That’s cold comfort, though, to those of us who have been so nourished and inspired by our beliefs and our church membership. It is as though we have offered a great gift to our children which they will not accept, or which they do not see as being a gift at all.
This anxiety was a topic that composer David Sargent and I were discussing when we sat down together in 2019 to collaborate on writing some hymns to submit for possible inclusion in the new LDS hymnal. Like us, David and his wife have gone through a kind of grieving as they have seen children distance themselves from the life of belief and church involvement that they knew growing up.
The thing is, we love our children—all of them—regardless of their religion or lack thereof. We love them fully, equally, and eternally. How could we express that love, while still prizing the restored gospel for all that it means to us?
A large part of the answer for me and my wife (as for David and his spouse) was the decision not to dwell on this aspect of our children’s lives. That has not always been easy, but we have set aside otherwise gut-wrenching worries and chosen instead to prioritize and safeguard our core relationships. Above all, we never want our non-practicing or ex-Mormon children to think for even a moment that our love is contingent upon their beliefs or their church activity. And this has worked!
Consciously prioritizing our relationships with our children has made us feel more connected to them. We no longer use church attendance as a proxy for how a family member is doing. And although it is certainly an irony, sacrificing what used to be firm expectations for our children about their spiritual lives has been a means of helping us feel more of the Savior’s unconditional love.
As David and I discussed how to write a hymn reflecting some of this, it helped for us to expand our scope and think about how even those living active church lives may still feel excluded, misunderstood, or ignored. Feeling alienated is core to the human experience, and there is no shortage of those who feel like outsiders even within the walls of faith.
1. Some stand apart: with us, and yet alone. Their spirits ache; in sadness they descend. Through bonds of love we remember every one. Let us be faithful ministers to them.
It does not require leaving the church to feel left out. My wife and I found this out in a sacrament meeting a few years back, not too long after our son came out of the closet. A returning missionary was telling the story of saving a homosexual man from his wayward life. He even mocked the effeminate mannerisms of their gay investigator. The congregation didn’t seem bothered by any of this, but we were very hurt by the speaker’s insensitivity. As the meeting ended we just sat dazed on the front row bench, feeling like outsiders in our own ward.
My wife and I have come to see homosexuality as a God-created state with its own peculiar blessings and opportunities. We await—with so many others—the further light and knowledge that can help us to understand God’s plan for his homosexual children. But in the interim, we sometimes feel at odds with our fellow believers. Could my wife and I keep coming to sacrament meeting if we are made to feel bad because we love our gay son and do not see him as someone in need of changing?
We suddenly felt very unwelcome in the church that had sustained us for decades. Our first instinct was to withdraw. However, immediately following that sacrament meeting, some friends of ours came right over to us. They know our son’s status and were keenly aware of what we felt was insensitive in the returning missionary’s story. They didn’t say much. They just came up to us and put their arms around us. So small an act, but it touched us deeply. Such are the bonds of love. Right when we were feeling a tearing in the fabric of our church family, we got restitched back in through timely ministering.
2. Some part from us; some choose another way. We’ll joy in you, our once and future friends. The bonds of love will outlast life’s little day. In faith we trust to find you near again.
As I wrote this second stanza, I had to be very honest with myself. Do I really joy in the lives of my children who have chosen not even to be Christians anymore? When one’s children make choices that we would not, this becomes a defining moment, a test of the depth of our love. My wife and I are hopeful that we have passed that test, that our sons outside of our faith do not feel shamed or judged or that they are worth any less than their church-active brothers in our eyes. It’s really a two-part test: letting them not be Mormon, and finding their non-LDS lives as meaningful. Ironically, our very commitment to our beliefs and sacred covenants can end up estranging the very children we would forever be connected with.
I worry about the way we practicing Latter-day Saints talk about those who are less active or who turn away completely from our church. I think people mean well, but some talk as though the ones who go their own way are living an inferior life, that their lives will be forever diminished so long as they remain outside the church—or, worse, that they have betrayed their family or their upbringing.
My wife, a convert at age 19, firmly departed from her Catholic upbringing and moved thousands of miles from home to live among fellow Mormons. Her parents did not guilt her for leaving Catholicism. In fact, they drove her out to Utah and urged her on with her new adventure. They have truly taken joy in the lives of my spouse and her four siblings, even though only one of their five children has remained a faithful Catholic. I’ve learned from them that bonds of love are more firm than the boundaries of membership.
It is my firm belief that as active Latter-day Saints we need to allow for some not to find God by way of Mormonism. As a parent who believes in loving Heavenly Parents, I need to extend all of my love to each of our children without hesitation, without that love being conditioned on whether those children remain active church members. It is the only way. I do believe that the bonds of love “will outlast life’s little day,” and I know from lived experience that one can be as close to a child who is not Mormon as to another child who is.
3. We all depart, all wander, all are lost. Without condition God opens wide his arms. We turn, we learn Jesus Christ has paid the cost. His bonds of love unbind us from all harm.
Isaiah taught that “all we, like sheep, have gone astray. We have turned every one to his own way.” We live lives of sin and virtue at the same time, trying daily and weekly to repent, to come back. But we are inveterate wanderers and recidivists. We fail and we fall. Each of us believers is the prodigal son, to some degree. We wander strange roads in our hearts and minds. Jesus is not just the Way; He is the way back. And it is his unqualified, exuberant embrace of us wanderer-sinners that allows us the dignity to make real progress.
The bonds of love can be formal and obvious, like a sealing ordinance. Or those bonds can be subtle and powerful, like timely ministering to those who feel on the fringes of our families or congregations. Music is itself a binding force, both within and beyond our worship services. And as David and I have composed our hymn, “The Bonds of Love,” we have felt how such bonds transcend barriers and connect us across whatever boundaries and differences that seem to separate us, uniting us through a merciful God and His radiant, ample empathy.
Gideon Burton is Assistant Professor of English at Brigham Young University where he teaches Renaissance literature, literature of the Latter-Day Saints, and rhetoric.
Artwork by Esther Hi'ilani Candari