DEBORAH: A few years back, one of my adult children had had enough of Mormonism. He’d always participated at church, attending with us each Sunday, going to Mutual and stake dances, attaining his Eagle award, even choosing to attend a church university. He’d not given us much grief in terms of rebellion, but inside—and without me realizing it—he was struggling because, try as he might, he couldn’t receive the testimony I’d promised him would come. After a great deal of angst and a fall into depression, he finally told me he would leave the church. He asked me how to go about it. Explaining the process was probably the most difficult thing I’ve been asked to do by a child. But, because I love him and because I could see his mental health was dwindling, I did.
The term “sad heaven” may not be an official term used in formal LDS theology, but it’s one that members are increasingly using. One unique aspect of LDS faith is the concept of a tiered heaven, with the Celestial Kingdom considered the highest degree of glory and the place complete joy can be experienced. It all gets sticky—and feels less heavenly—when a family member opts to leave what President Russell M. Nelson calls the covenant path. Parents who have a wayward child can no longer look forward to an eternity in the Celestial Kingdom as a completely joyful place, simply because Child X won’t be there. This suddenly became my eternal prospect because my child wasn’t just wayward but had severed his ties with the church.
My hope for the Celestial Kingdom became tinged with sadness. I blubbered through more than a few church meetings, as church leaders and other members (mostly young parents) spoke of training up a child the right way, about how “solid” their children were because they lived the gospel as a family. It was soul-crushing. I didn’t know how to climb out from under the heavy emotional fore-shadow of a sad heaven, while, at the same time, granting my son his free will. I’d watch parents in my situation shun their children (perhaps to provide themselves emotional distance?), become passive-aggressive toward them, and even fall into depression and self-loathing out of a fear they’d failed as parents.
I determined to never view my child as a destroyer of my happiness, or as an enemy, which is the same when speaking of eternal families. I wanted to see him the way God sees him, not necessarily through the theological lens of Mormonism, which marks our worth according to steps on a covenant path. I did what LDS do: I prayed, reflected, fasted, and, as a result, realized that, while the institution erased his name, Heavenly Father never will. The institution unchecked his boxes, but Heavenly Father knows and sees all the goodness and honor within my son. In reality, it wasn’t sin that compelled him to leave the Church, but his integrity.
I won’t catalog his issues with the church or how he felt his integrity challenged if he maintained his membership. That’s his story to tell, should he ever want to. But I will borrow phraseology from contemporary discourse and just say that he felt “inauthentic” as a Mormon. The important thing is, he was the same person in the church as he is out of the church, save for a little wine and coffee. He remains honest, trustworthy, faithful, kind, generous, giving, fun, and a myriad of more positive traits that leave me in awe of his goodness.
But sad heaven seemed to loom over me like a darkness. And so, proverbially speaking, I turned the light of Christ directly on sad heaven and witnessed for myself that it is a lie. I reject the notion that our Heavenly Parents will somehow make it all right. That’s placating. Rather, I realized through the comfort of the Holy Ghost, that it already is all right, that They see the goodness and love in my son, that all the growth opportunities I imagined he’d have inside the church he can have outside. And I’ve come to accept that he is where our Heavenly Parents would have him—in a place where his heart is less troubled and his soul can seek the things it needs.
Yes, my son had his name removed from the records of the church. It hurt. I’ll probably always be sad that we don’t have church membership in common and that our worldviews have diverged. But the records of the church are such a small part of the record of his being.
The holiest record is the one written on my heart, and on his, and both will testify before God and all the angels that he remains a remarkable child of God, a man of integrity and honor. No checked or unchecked boxes represent him. Our relationship is eternal because our love is eternal, knowing no limit. Inside or outside the church, he will return to his eternal home with his talents increased. He will remain my son just as he will remain Heavenly Father’s son. And I will be proud of him, just as I am now. Nothing—no ethereal boundary—will ever separate us: love cannot be contained. Heaven can never be sad when such a love exists.
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2 Replies to “On Eternal Families, Sad Heaven, and My Beloved Son”
I haven’t heard that concept called “sad heaven” before, but it fits.
Did you ever see the musical “Brigadoon?” It’s about an enchanted Scottish village that is protected from the evils of the world because it disappears, and only reappears for one day every hundred years. This isolation keeps it uncontaminated. However, the catch to it is that no one can ever leave, or the enchantment is broken. There’s a man who wants to leave (Harry Beaton) because the woman he loves is marrying someone else. He’s miserable, and he doesn’t want to be there because of his broken heart. He tries to leave. Horrors! He’ll destroy them all! There’s a big chase, and Harry Beaton ends up dying (sorry for the spoiler). But his death saves the sanctity of Brigadoon. That really just creeped me out (though I loved the music and the accents). If he doesn’t want to be there, he should be able to leave. Brigadoon is a prison, just a really nice one.
Sometimes I think Mormons teach the Celestial Kingdom like Brigadoon. No empty chairs, or it won’t be heaven! Well, if you don’t want to be there, it’s not heaven. And if other people blame you for ruining heaven for everyone else, then that’s kinda judgmental.
I had my own experience accepting “sad heaven,” though it didn’t involve my child, but someone else. After a lot of prayer and misery, I got an assurance that wherever God is, it will be heaven. I got no assurance at all that anyone I’m related to will be there. It took some time to adjust to it, but now I really like that version of heaven. No family pressure!
I am glad that you’ve found peace. I also believe that God is a God of love, and not everyone finds their way to God through the Mormon Church. Every time I have wondered about the limits on God’s love, I’ve found that I am wrong to try to limit him to my narrow definitions. I get some pity due to my family situation, and that irritates me. I do not need to be pitied. I’ve gotten a solid assurance, and I am just fine.