Stories in this episode: Sarah and her brother decide to turn their father in to the police hoping he will find the help he needs to make necessary changes in his life; Chrislyn is deep in grief after learning about decisions her mother made and watching her be sentenced to life in prison. The Atonement of Jesus Christ and the power of forgiveness take on new meaning for both our storytellers, even if their lives haven’t yet reached a happy ending.
Elder Renlund’s talk: “Infuriating Unfairness,” Elder Dale G. Renlund, April 2021 general conference.
Sarah had to make the difficult decision to turn her father in, but relied on her Savior throughout the process:
Chrislyn finds healing and peace in the Savior amidst grief over her mom’s actions:
KaRyn Lay 0:00
Welcome to "This Is the Gospel," an LDS Living podcast where we feature real stories from real people who are practicing and living their faith every day. I'm your host, KaRyn Lay. I really believe that there's a first time for everything, and the strangest thing happened when we were searching for stories for this episode.
Our producers separately contacted storytellers and booked the recordings, only to discover that the stories were extraordinarily similar in some ways. Now, normally, if that happens, any good episode producer worth their salt will call someone and cancel, or postpone and reassign it to another theme.
We really try hard to find diverse stories around that theme to illustrate the many, many ways that a principle of discipleship can actually play out for individuals. But for some reason, it just didn't seem right to do that to either storyteller.
So we went back and forth, and back and forth, for at least a week before the recordings. And in the end, we just knew that we needed both stories and that they needed to be in the same episode.
And now that they're recorded, and I've had some time to think about it, I actually–I have a pretty good idea of why it happened. But you're going to have to listen to the stories before I share my hypothesis. And here's a quick note for sensitive listeners–although the stories are told very carefully, there are some traumatic events that are integral to the story plot.
Our first story comes from Sarah, who needed to do the right thing, even though that right thing was incredibly hard.
It had been a long day, the kids were in bed and I was surfing through social media when alarm bells were going off in my head for what I had seen for only seconds. I looked closer at where the alarm bells were coming from, and the posts that I saw was from my dad's account, and it was clear that conversations that we had had about getting him help were not enough.
And so, in that moment, I felt like I needed to call my brother. And I did, he picked up right away. And after showing him what I had seen, we both had the same thought. And that thought was, "How long were we going to let my dad hurt other people?" "How long were we going to let him get away with what he was doing? And how long are we going to not do the right thing?"
And so we made a joint decision that turning my dad in was the best possible answer. He was never going to get the help that he needed otherwise. And we knew that that was a hard, but necessary choice in order to let things happen the way that they needed to.
We talked about when we would turn him in, and between the two of us who would do it. And my brother said, "I think the middle of the night is the perfect time to call." And then he said, "Sarah, it has to be me." And so he made that call.
And then . . . nothing. We heard absolutely nothing for months. I thought that my brother's phone call to the police had fallen on deaf ears. In my mind, it was gonna be a "Law & Order" episode where you make this phone call and they show up and they bang down the door and there's resolution in an hour. But it wasn't like that at all.
One morning, in the early, early hours, I got a text from my mom. And the text said, "The police were here this morning, they raided the house and dad's been arrested." That was it. That was the text and we knew that something was finally going to happen.
So it was a lot of feelings. But over time . . . I broke during this process. Like really broke. I was so angry. I was angry that my family was going through this and angry at the choices that my dad had made. And angry that I didn't score the perfect ideal LDS family. I was so, so angry.
And I think part of that was from, you know, my whole life, feeling all the feelings I had put on a shelf for a really long time in my upbringing. You know, I thought I had moved forward from some hurt and thought I was doing pretty okay, and I wasn't.
When I look back at all the hurt I have from him–I was hurt, and am hurt, by his choices and the choices that he made that prioritized what led to him being incarcerated over our family.
During that anger, I said one of those prayers you say when you've had enough, just one of those prayers, like where you're really letting Heavenly Father have it. And I told Heavenly Father everything that I was feeling, and the peace was immediate. And the answer that I got was, "You can drink from the bitter cup without becoming bitter yourself." I knew in that moment that my hurt could eat me alive. And I could choose to be stuck there. Or I could share that burden with my Savior.
Having a family member who's incarcerated is hard. You worry about so many things. Things that I didn't think I would worry about–I did. I worried about the justice system doing the right thing. I worried about my dad's health. I worried about my relationship with him. I'm not close to my dad and never have been. But I had to make some really hard choices about moving forward what our relationship would look like.
And I did worry about the judgment of other people. Because saying out loud, "My dad's in prison," doesn't come off well. It's very easy to feel judged, like I did something when I hadn't. I would have to–and still have to–remind myself on hard days that I'm not my dad. And that my dad's choices are not my choices.
After that prayer, and after receiving that answer that I needed to not be bitter, I knew I had a lot of work to do. And I knew that I was going to need help. So for me, moving forward, that meant going to therapy and talking through all of those feelings, and learning that grief is a cyclical process. It's not, "Oh, I am angry now. And then I can move very peacefully and wonderfully to acceptance." It's not that.
But throughout my dad's time in prison, you know, it was very normal, he could have visitors, correspondence was easy. And then COVID happened. And the prison completely shut down. My dad couldn't have–or anyone couldn't have–any visitors. And so my dad, for the past two years, spent his, almost his entire day in his cell with a cellmate. During that time, his health has completely deteriorated.
So the last couple of weeks of my dad's time in prison was spent in the hospital. And then he was released into my family's care. But not too long ago, just a few weeks ago, I was feeling that bitterness creep up again. And feeling . . . feeling that anger start to begin. And I said this prayer for my dad. And I started the prayer, I said, "Heavenly Father . . . I know this is a prayer for the undeserving. But I need to say this prayer for my dad. That he'll feel peace and he'll feel comfort."
And as soon as I ended that prayer, I just felt His voice, and it said, "Nobody is undeserving of prayer." The times that I feel like I want to harden my heart, and just not even think about my dad or not even think about what I've been through, I'm reminded that my dad is a child of God, too.
Sometimes accepting that my dad is a child of God is hard. I think it's so personal. You know, if it was someone else in jail, like, I would have almost more grace about it. Like, "Yes, of course that person's a child of God." But when it comes to my dad that hurt is–it applies directly to me. So having those feelings and thoughts and balancing my own feelings towards my dad, and knowing that he is loved unconditionally by our Heavenly Parents, and I still have a lot to work through with my own feelings of love towards him is really hard.
I feel like so often we feel that God's going to pull out this magic wand and fix everything. Or we feel like the Atonement is this really quick process, like Christ has already suffered for this and He's already felt all of this pain and so I feel like sometimes we take that to mean–we don't need to feel it too. And that's not true.
For me the Atonement is so much more than I gave it credit for with my Sunday School answers. The Atonement is fully accepting the bad things that happen in our lives and choosing to rely on Him through that process.
That was Sarah.
While I really hope few of us can relate to the particulars of her story, I think there are some universal elements that apply to all of us as we navigate the inevitable injustices of mortality.
As for me, the thing that I'm holding on to from the story is that reminder that even as we seek to be unified in our families and our relationships, we're ultimately responsible only for our own choices.
When Sarah felt the Spirit remind her that she could drink from the bitter cup without becoming bitter, I don't think she was being chastised for being angry in her prayer. I mean, we believe in a father in heaven, who has plenty of room in His heart for our hurt. He can totally handle our flailing fists and our angry words.
But what He was warning Sarah of was bigger than just an emotional outburst of normal human emotion. I think that becoming bitter is different than feeling bitter, or even expressing bitter feelings. To become something means to transform, to change, to grow into something.
So the invitation to Sarah–and to all of us–was always about how we do or don't let our challenges change the way we interact with the world. Will we choose to see the world through the lens of sharpness, darkness, and a lack of what makes things sweet? Or will we choose to show up to the world, and the other people in it, with softness and optimism, trusting that the price Jesus Christ paid in the Garden of Gethsemane actually has the power to make up the difference for those injustices?
It reminds me of what Elder Renlund said in his April 2021 talk, "Infuriating Unfairness." And I have to say, I have read this talk probably–20 times. I love it so much. He said, quote, "Jesus Christ overcame the world and absorbed all unfairness. Because of Him, we can have peace in this world and be of good cheer. If we let Him, Jesus Christ will consecrate the unfairness for our gain, He will not just console us and restore what was lost, He will use the unfairness for our benefit," end quote.
And in the case of Sarah, I really think that one of the benefits she discovered was that newfound wisdom that we're not responsible for the agency of others, even when their actions affect us.
It may seem odd at first to say that implementing good boundaries is an important characteristic of discipleship, but if you really think about it, sometimes disengaging with love gets us out of the way, so God can do His work with the people we care about. And a key to being able to forgive is to recognize that we can't fix it and that we don't have to fix it. That is the job of the Savior.
Now our next story comes from Chrislyn.
I grew up with a great family–a family of six girls. We were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and we were very active. And then things just kind of started changing. And I noticed, you know, my dad wasn't always coming to church with us. And I started to . . . kind of open up my young eyes and realize that, you know, my parents were no longer even active in the Church.
Then the next thing I knew, I learned that my parents were getting a divorce and it was devastating to me. After the divorce, it was really hard because the family was very broken apart.
I went to live with my mom and some sisters lived with my dad, and I just felt this like great loss at that time. One Sunday, we were getting ready to go to a new ward. And my mom came down to my room, and she just said, "Chrislyn, I'm going to just take you and drop you off at church today."
And I realized in that moment that she was making the decision herself to not be active in the church anymore. And I had a really big decision to make–be at home alone, you know, I didn't have an intact family at that time, or go to a place where I felt that I belonged. And I always felt more peace when I was at Church. And you know, as a young girl, I just–on a very deep level, learned that I always belonged to God, even when the family isn't intact, and I decided to keep going.
I became the only one that was going to church in my family. And it was a very lonely journey. I still had a relationship with my family members. But when we're not connected spiritually, you can feel you're on very different paths of life sometimes.
As I became older and went to college and kind of started discovering who I was, my mom at this time also was on her own new journey. And she was able to get remarried to a wonderful man. And as I saw her start creating a new family unit, we all enjoyed the benefits of that. And my mom and her husband became a really great influence on me, both a great example of marriage and of working together and sacrificing and loving each other.
A few years after they got married, I also fell in love and got married to my husband. And very quickly, I felt this family unit come back together. We had our first baby, and when we had our first baby, that was my stepfather's first grandchild. And they became the grandparents that you always dreamed your kids will have. They were present. They wanted to teach my kids everything about life. And my relationship with my mom over those years was getting stronger than it really had ever been in my life. And also with my stepfather, it was just a very rich experience.
And my husband and I would go on trips with them every year. We would take kind of a getaway, week long trip. And on this one particular one, we were sitting around and talking about how I was expecting my third child and was making the choice to leave my full time career of working outside of the home and start this new journey of being a full time mother at home with three kids and how, you know, my mother and my stepfather would play a great role in this. And there were so many great things on the horizon to be thinking about, what to do together as a family.
A few weeks after that trip . . . everything changed. I was at work one morning, getting ready for a big meeting. And I was very consumed in this project. And I kept getting this phone call from my sister who honestly never calls me. We always would text or email and so I knew right away something was wrong. And I stepped out and I took the call and she let me know that there had been some sort of boating accident. And my stepfather had fallen overboard and was gone. I didn't know much more at that point. We dropped everything and we flew to be with my mom who had lost the love of her life.
I didn't know what this meant. I just knew I needed to be there with my mother. And we had lost that family unit again.
While we were there, we were made aware that my mother was under investigation for embezzling money from her company. And we also learned that my stepfather was never aware of this. Our grief, just multiplied. Everything kind of just came crumbling down.
I didn't know at that point who to trust or what to believe, or how to fix this. I didn't know what I was supposed to do. And I was afraid that I would lose that family bond. That sitting together, having the grandparents influence . . .and I turned to God, and the only thing I knew in that moment to do was to love and to support and to offer grace to others who had made mistakes.
And I was committed to that. I was committed to standing by my mother as she figured out what she needed to do to make this right. My role in my family has always been to play that middle child who creates peace and brings people together. I also–in my own work and field, that's my job, is to assess and to see the problems and to help solve them. I think I just went into this as that was my role again, to be there, and to help figure out how to fix this.
For months it was messy and it was hard. And there were so many unknowns of what had really happened, and what was true and what was not. This all came at a really great expense of my own. One of the biggest things I gave up was the ability to mourn the loss of my stepfather. My heart was very broken, but the grief and the mourning couldn't happen at that time, because of all these other things that were happening.
Over the next two years, my mother ended up being convicted of the embezzlement. And during that time, she also became under investigation for the murder of my stepfather. There had come to light enough evidence that was definitely showing us that there was probably truth to this. She emphatically denied this.
It was very hard for me to believe that she could do that. And I didn't want to believe it. But there was a point where I . . . I was worn out. And I asked God, "What do I need to do in this situation?" My prayers started changing as this was weighing me down. And instead of asking God, "What do I need to do? How can I fix this? How can I help her?"
I started asking God, "Please show me a new way. Please help me to know how I can heal my broken wounds and my broken heart." And I–at that time, found a really great therapist, and had a couple really good friends who helped me to see that the belief that I learned at a very young age, that God lives, and that we belong to Him. And that we have a Savior, who suffered for our sins and our pains so that we do not have to carry those. They reminded me that I could never take the place of the Savior, that I needed to let go and let Him take my mom through this.
I needed to allow Him to also heal me. That there was nothing my mom could have ever done to fix all of the wounds that she caused. And to bring things back to the way they were. For so long I held on to that, that if we could make things right, or if we could fix things, that we could get there.
But in that moment when I realized that I was actually standing in the way of the Savior doing the very thing He suffered for us to do . . . I was able to step aside and to stop carrying that burden. I was able to do it in love still. I think that was the hardest thing for me at first thinking that if I didn't agree with her, or if I didn't believe something that maybe I wasn't loving. And I started to learn that there's a difference in loving someone, and agreeing with everything that they say, or believe, or do.
After I started to realize I was standing in the way of the Lord, I started to realize that I was afraid that if I let go, I was gonna lose all of the good from the past. I was afraid if I accepted that my mom had done this and had taken the life of my stepfather, that I would lose all of the good that we had as well. And then it would mean that none of that was true either.
My therapist saw that fear in me that I was holding on. She, one day, just helped remind me that I am allowed to hold joy in one hand and sorrow in the other. And this is why the Savior has offered so much to us. So that even in our pains, we can still feel the joy.
It was a huge shift for me, in accepting that I could hold both. And I started to see that the Lord was willing to be there to help take care of me in this as well. And I started to see that I needed to create some healthy boundaries.
My mom was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of my stepfather. And it was really hard to see this happen to her. And at the same time, we needed that justice and have closure on these years of the unknown.
Because my mother wasn't in a state of mind where she could admit the truth or give any of us the answers that we needed–that we felt would be the things that would help us to heal and to get some resolution and to move forward–I had to start discovering where I could get that. And that forgiveness was gonna look a lot different than what I thought it looked like at the beginning.
Where can I find peace and resolution when one of the hardest and most, you know, unimaginable things happens in your life? How do you heal from that? How do you recover from that? When I had hoped that she could make things right and realized . . . I can't put that on her. She never could do that. And that's why I needed to learn how to turn this over to the Savior..
The peace of letting go and knowing that the Savior's not only going to take care of me, and take care of my family and take care of my stepfather's family and His kids. But He's going to take care of my mother. And I believe that. And I have come to learn that as sad as it is to not have a relationship with my mother, I love her. And I know that the Lord is taking care of her. And that He will, because that is what I believe.
And I know that the Atonement is for everyone. We often say, you know, "Forgive and forget." But it's actually okay that when we forgive, we often can't forget. And I think that's truly the point when we accept that we may not be able to forget something or that the pain, it's going to be there. It's not going to magically disappear. We have to be willing to ask the Savior, "What can you do for me to help me find that joy again?" "How can you fill this hole in my life?" "What can I do to learn a new way?" "What can I do to find the feelings of a family unit again without a family unit?" "How can I feel like I belong?"
And I have had some of the sweetest experiences of the Lord showing me where I do belong and that I belong to Him, and I belong to my sweet family. And I think that often times when we are so hurt, we think there may be no other way. But I have learned there always is another way with the Savior.
That was Chrislyn. I know it feels like I say this every week about our storytellers, but I am privileged to know her personally. And as I have watched her navigate this incredibly unthinkable tragedy, I've learned so much about what it means to live with integrity. To learn who you are as a divine child of Heavenly Parents, and match your actions to that knowing.
What I didn't know before we recorded this story was that Chrislyn has had that kind of integrity since she was a teenager when she chose to attend church alone because it was what felt true to her heart. And we saw it again in her story when the truth about her mom's actions became clear.
There is a lot of humility in the willingness to see things as they really are, even when every fiber of your being desperately, desperately wants it not to be true.
I keep thinking about that lesson that she learned from her therapist–and just a side note, aren't we so glad that both of our friends in this episode found support from highly trained professionals who could guide them through such traumatic experiences? As my friend Lumina once said, "Anyone who's ever been in therapy knows that everyone needs to be in therapy," and I really agree with her. But I digress, let's get back to that complex and beautiful lesson about being able to hold joy in one hand, and grief in the other.
I say it's complex, because it's a truth that demands we somehow understand the wholeness of the human experience. And it's beautiful because it's really hopeful. We learn from the scriptures that there is opposition in all things. And by "All things," God means us too. We're deeply good and deeply flawed. We're cautionary tales and role models. We're defiant sinners and penitent believers.
We are both divine and hopelessly earthbound at times. And sometimes at the same time. The dual nature of our divine humanity gives us a range that is absolutely stunning when you think about it. So of course, we have the capacity to hold our grief and our joy simultaneously.
And we saw that in Chrislyn's story, in her wrestle to understand what it looks like to forgive when the person who has hurt us refuses to, or simply can't, acknowledge the pain they've caused.
She's helped me to remember that it's okay to feel both the peace that comes from believing Christ, while also feeling all of the feelings that come from unresolved betrayal. We're not weak, or unbelieving if forgiveness doesn't remove the memory of the hurt.
So now that you've heard both of the stories, you can understand how unusual it was for us to have both come to us at the same time. And I guess I can share my hypothesis about why this happened.
Over the years of hosting and producing this podcast, I've talked to so many people about storytelling. And one thing happens like clockwork, someone will tell me that they have been encouraged, healed, changed, moved to tears by the stories of others that we share.
And then I will ask them, "Well, so what's your story?" And they tell me, "Oh, I don't–I don't have a story." Or this is the other one I hear all the time, "My story just isn't that special. No one wants to hear what I have to say." Now, if we had shared only one story from this episode, you would have said, "Oh my gosh, that is an incredible story of courage in the face of something unimaginable, something that just doesn't happen to most people."
But what does it mean when we've got two examples of this incredibly unimaginable thing happening to two people in one episode of a podcast? Well, first, we have to acknowledge that while some of the details were very similar, these stories happened to two distinct people with distinct life experiences and distinct spiritual gifts and needs.
I didn't learn the exact same thing from both stories. And I suspect that the things that spoke to you from these stories is vastly different from what spoke to me. And if that is true of these extraordinary stories that they could be so similar and learn something different than couldn't it be true of the seemingly less extraordinary stories? The ones you think are too simple or too uninteresting to share–your conversion story. The time you received that meaningful ministering visit. Your first time away from home. The first time you came home after being away for a long time. The moment you felt the first flame of testimony in the MTC. The last time you said goodbye to a loved one before they passed beyond the earthly veil.
I honestly think that we got these two stories at the same time so God could help you see that your story may not be filled with cliffhanging adventure like Stacey Taniguchi's helicopter rescue on Denali, or surprisingly epic, like Dusty's recommitment to Christ after years of being a persecutor. Or deeply dramatic like Chrislyn and Sarah. But that isn't what makes a story special.
You are what make your story special. Your perspective, your lessons, your vision that you bring. Those are the most unique things about your story, and whether you believe it or not–the Community of Christ, the culture of Christ, our effort towards Zion, needs your voice.
I am a firm believer in that whole "line upon line" business. So I'm not going to challenge you to march up to the pulpit this next Sunday or start your own storytelling podcast–although I would welcome both things.
But I do hope that you'll let that idea–let that idea marinate, that germ of a thought that your voice can offer things to the choirs of our unified discipleship that no one else can . . just let that marinate. I'm praying for you and for your story every day. And my truest hope is that you will find a good courage when the time presents itself, when that time comes up to speak the truth of the gospel that's born of your own story, and your own experience, and that you'll speak that truth with your own voice.
That's it for this episode of "This Is the Gospel." Thank you to our storytellers Sarah and Chrislyn. Oh, thank you. Thank you for your vulnerability, for your willingness to share your story so that we could connect with ours.
You can learn more about all of our "This Is the Gospel," storytellers in our show notes at LDS living.com/thisisthegospel. All of the stories in this episode are true and accurate, as affirmed by our storytellers. And you can get more stories and top tips for telling your own stories by following us on Facebook or Instagram @thisisthegospel_podcast.
If you've had a positive experience listening to these stories on this podcast, we'd really love to hear it. Our little team reads every review and it totally brightens our hearts to hear how stories are blessing yours. You can leave us a review on Apple, Stitcher or whatever platform you listen on. This episode was produced by Erika Free with additional story production and editing by me, KaRyn Lay and Kelly Campbell. It was scored, mixed and mastered by Mix at Six studios. Our executive producer is Erin Hallstrom and you can find past episodes of this podcast and other LDS Living podcasts at LDSliving.com/podcasts.