[It’s been about five years since I gave a talk in sacrament meeting, and this is it. The topic’s been on my mind lately, so I went in this direction after being given the Proclamation to the World as a general topic.]
Good morning everyone, my name is Neal Silvester. You might remember my wife spoke last week on fatherhood. I have a related topic, the Proclamation on the family. I wanted to open this talk with the Brady Bunch theme song because it’s eerily similar to my family’s situation. It’s the story of a man named Rick (that’s my dad) who had three kids from a previous marriage; and it’s the story of a lovely lady named Melanie (that’s my mom) who had three kids of her own, also from a previous marriage.
Till the one day when the lady met this fellow
And they knew it was much more than a hunch,
That this group must somehow form a family.
That’s the way we all became the Silvester Bunch.
(I’m the seventh kid, the only child of my two parents together.)
Anyway, my family isn’t exactly what you’d envision when reading the Proclamation. But one of my best friends had a family like that. His parents had a perfect marriage and six children who all went on missions (including the daughters) and got or are getting college degrees. They are all beautiful people, intelligent and free of mental or physical illness. The father is a financial success many times over and grandchildren have begun to sprout.
I think there’s a very specific kind of hell we experience when we compare ourselves to the surface lives of other people (which is often the only thing we have to go on). Or in this case, the surface lives of other families.
Because that family, the ideal gospel family, is not what I grew up in. Though my previous description might have been amusing, the reality is that each of my parents had to go through painful divorces in their prior marriages, all the more painful because those marriages were broken by the other spouse, via abuse, infidelity, all the usual horrible things. Those two families had to literally break apart to fuse together into my current one. And such breaks always leave lasting scars that only the gospel and the Atonement can heal.
In my family’s case, things started out reasonably well. Though there were the usual sibling spats, they stayed in the realm of “usual.” Then they all started growing up. Family ties started to fracture and children started to stray, partly due to poorly understood bipolar disorder among some of my family. An even greater effect was my mother’s ex-husband, who had left the church. His example and attitude began to pull my mom’s kids away from gospel values. None of them went on missions (including me; I never served because of the bipolar disorder), and in fact all three of the others are completely out of the church, and two of them have already divorced their first spouses. Their choices broke not only the family, but my poor mother’s heart. And if you have any wayward children, you know your heart breaks anew every single day.
It hurt all the more because my mom was a paragon of gospel faith. She has never once strayed from the gospel path. She taught us while we were young, had regular Family Home Evenings, and set a constant example for us.
Yet my siblings rebelled, even so.
How is this fair? How is it fair that no matter how hard we try, some of our families remain spiritually broken, nowhere near the ideal we’re commanded to reach for in this church? Why is it that some families are torn apart by abuse or mental illness, and they must suffer the fires of an emotional hell while other families remain totally devoted to the gospel seemingly without even trying?
Then there is the guilt that righteous but mortal parents can heap upon themselves. We are our own worst judges, and when three of your children rebel against everything you taught them their entire lives it seems there is no one else to blame. We can give the standard answer of “agency,” that it’s the children’s choice whether to accept the gospel or not and no one else’s, and that’s true, but it still feels desperately unfair. After all, other parents’ kids chose the right. Their kids chose to hold onto the iron rod, to love you and the Savior, and they didn’t have to deal with the effects of abuse or chemical imbalances.
The truth is, we cannot always control our circumstances. And we certainly cannot go back in time to correct mistakes of the past. When I foolishly compare the state of my family to the supposed gospel ideal, I have to remind myself that not all servants of the Lord are granted the same number of talents. To one He gives five, to another, three, and to another, only one. Then He sees what we do with what we’re given. When all is said and done, we are judged not on outcome, but on input. On what we ended up accomplishing compared to God’s initial investment.
My mom, the faithful steward that she was, never saw any of her sons go on missions. How will God judge her?
How will God judge Lehi, whose two oldest sons rebelled and whose choices led to the destruction of an entire civilization?
How will God judge Alma the Elder, the high priest and prophet, whose son actively sought to destroy the church?
How will God judge righteous king Mosiah, whose sons followed Alma’s son and did the devil’s work so long?
And how will God judge Himself? He who has lost more children than any of us can even count. He who can sometimes do nothing but weep in His own private hell, and say, “What more could I have done for my vineyard?”
I apologize, because I don’t want this to be all about doom and gloom. Rather, it’s the opposite. I seek to remind any struggling parents and any members of any kind of broken family today that God loves broken things.
Think about it. For one thing, we are told that a broken heart isn’t just suggested but required before we can access Christ and the Atonement. And because we are mortal people with mortal perspectives and mortal desires, we are going to be broken spiritually at times, too. Because of the Fall, we live in a world of decay, where things break apart. Mistakes happen. Sins happen. God knows it, and He expects it. God loves broken things because, above all, His own family is broken, and He is trying to piece it back together.
And that is why He sent His Son. The Atonement was an act performed explicitly to heal broken things, to put disparate pieces back together again, to reunite parts of a whole. President Howard W. Hunter said, “Whatever Jesus lays His hands upon, lives. If He lays His hands upon a marriage, it lives. If He is allowed to lay His hands on the family, it lives.”
You’ll notice Pres. Hunter said “If He is allowed to lay His hands.” That is because we are not objects, like the rest of the matter in the universe. He can put a broken rock back together with ease, but His children are trickier because we have our agency. Respect for that agency forbids Him from fixing what does not want to be fixed. Not even God can fix or heal something that is not holding still, willing to be submissive to Him and trust in His methods. Thus it is we who allow Him into our lives. And if we do, our families, our souls, our hearts and minds, can be healed. It takes time, and faith, and love, and a willingness to suffer long, perhaps even into the next life, but these are the same attributes God employs in His quest to bring all His family at one with Him.
Brigham Young declared, “Let the father and mother, who are members of this Church and Kingdom, take a righteous course, and strive with all their might never to do a wrong, but to do good all their lives; if they have one child or one hundred children, if they conduct themselves towards them as they should, binding them to the Lord by their faith and prayers, I care not where those children go, they are bound up to their parents by an everlasting tie, and no power of earth or hell can separate them from their parents in eternity; they will return again to the fountain from whence they sprang.”
Isn’t that a beautiful thing? The Savior will not say “The work is finished” until every single resource, every particle of pleading and persuasion and prayer, has been exhausted in the gathering of God’s wayward children, and they are sealed to us no matter what. I can’t imagine a more comforting doctrine. Sometimes the hope that doctrine engenders is the only thing we have to cling to.
Temple ordinances are the vehicle for this reunification of God’s children. Their sealing power allows children to come back to their families in the hereafter, and reinforces against further decay. A mentor of mine, Stephan Peers, once put it this way:
“When people are sealed in the temple—sealed either to one another, spousal relationships, or to their children—those parents are the best opportunity that those children have to reach salvation. That is not to say that the children will. It is to say that those parents are the right people to give them those best opportunities. That is not to say that if a child does not reach salvation it is a parental failure. It is to say that there is no better opportunity for salvation than the sealing power. None. Hence, we have temples.”
In this way, the family is essential to the success of the Atonement. A family headed by two loving, righteous parents sealed in the temple is the best framework for growth and salvation Heavenly Father can give the spirit children that He sends down to Earth. Which is why the Proclamation declares that, “Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.” The family is like a castle, the main structural protection against invading forces. Without the high brick walls and iron gates, individual soldiers and even the royalty within can be picked off with ease.
In this light it seems obvious why Satan is targeting the family, and why, as these times look more and more like the days preceding the Second Coming, he seems to have a marksman’s aim, for he is hitting his targets dead on. Whether it’s through parental apathy, infidelity, or even downright cruelty, he is succeeding in shattering families and by extension souls themselves. With no consistent parental structure to foster and frame the upbringing of a new soul, the adversary is easily able to take the reins and provide a subtle and sinister framework of his own. This is why the Proclamation closes with a warning that should shake every reader in his or her shoes: “We warn that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.”
That was in 1995. Can’t we see now, just two decades later, how prophetic that was? I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that if the whole world followed even just the law of chastity, 90% of society’s problems would completely vanish.
There is yet another reason why we as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints take parenthood and the family so seriously: it’s the pattern of living of exalted beings. A message from the Quorum of the Twelve in 1973 declared that parenthood is “an apprenticeship to godhood.” It’s a test of stewardship that reveals how we would act given even the slightest sliver of literal godlike responsibilities—how and who we’d be towards our hosts of spirit children if we were God Himself.
Ideally—ideally, there’s that word again—this stewardship of parenthood is only granted to us in God’s kingdom after we’ve advanced to a certain stage of spirituality, which we mark by our having received the highest blessings of the temple. The stepping stones of the endowment and sealing ordinances are what make us ready for the next step: having children.
But as we know firsthand, mistakes are made. Laws are broken. And sometimes we get the higher responsibilities at the wrong time, before we’re ready. That can make the burden all the harder to bear—much of the world is as much of a mess as it is because so many parents are not even close to being qualified to bear that burden.
Wonderfully, there are exceptions. Sometimes people rise to the occasion. Sometimes we see parents who are single through no fault of their own, who fight all the harder, and teach their young ones all the better. These single parents, almost always women, need our support. They need to be embraced, and loved, and listened to, because they are doing their best with what they have, and that is all God asks of us. I believe these single parents will be lauded all the more at the last day because they stepped up to their stewardship as much as any other did.
And it is the other spouse or sexual partner—the abuser, the deserter—who will be shaking and trembling at the judgment bar of God, wishing for a mountain to cover them, to hide their shame. For the Proclamation issues this warning to us all: “We warn that individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring, or who fail to fulfill family responsibilities will one day stand accountable before God.” President David O. McKay even said that the first thing Christ will ask us in our personal interview on the other side will be about our relationships with our family—our spouse and our children as individuals.
Those who have made drastic mistakes in the past sometimes pile more guilt upon themselves than is necessary, as if punishing ourselves before God can do it. But frankly, I don’t think God punishes us in this life. I think He lets the natural consequences of our actions, and the suffering sin begets, be punishment enough. If it shakes us sufficient to wake us up and get us turned in the right direction, I think that’s enough justice for Him. It should be enough for us, too.
So while the Atonement does not necessarily liberate us from the natural consequences of our choices, it does mercifully strengthen our ability to bear those consequences, and allows us to grow from them without the shadow of condemnation hanging over us. If we are facing the light, no matter how far along we are on the path, we are not under condemnation from God. So, ultimately, though our lives are shaped by them, our souls are not judged by the trials we endure but by the way we endure them. Because that is what crafts the soul.
I originally titled this talk “Pantheon.” The word generally refers to the family of the Greek gods: Zeus, Athena, Hermes, all those guys. Taken literally, “pantheon” means the house of the gods. That’s why I love that word. I believe that is what each of us as parents are building as we raise and guide and love our children. Think about it: we are literally raising a household of little beings who can one day approach the same state of existence as our Heavenly Father. In other words, we are raising gods. As the Twelve said, parenthood is an apprenticeship to godhood. That’s what this is all about! That’s why it’s so serious.
So, like our Father, we will sometimes weep over our children. And like Alma the Elder and king Mosiah, we will pray over them, plead for miracles that we can trust—with the surety of their prodigious and confirmed faith—that a miracle will one day occur in their lives.
But we cannot and will not make their choices for them. The only way to be like God is to choose to be like Him, and because ALL of us are just starting out on this eternal journey, we’re going to choose otherwise from time to time. Both parents and children are imperfect and fall short and do things that widen the chasm. Hence, we have the Savior, who watches and waits—to rescue us, to heal us, to make us His, and to make all of us at one with our Heavenly Father.
Remember: God loves broken things. So allow Him entrance into your life and family. Like all of God’s great works, it will take time, so practice those divine attributes of patience and long-suffering, because God uses them with us every day. Give Him the time it will take to truly heal your broken heart. Let Him heal your broken soul. Allow Him to heal your broken family.
Because that’s how He heals—and seals—His own.
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.