This last Sunday, Bruce and I were asked to give talks during the main meeting at church. (In the LDS church we don’t have a paid ministry, so people from the membership of the church are asked to give a talk – like a sermon, I guess- each week.) We were asked to talk about the parable of the prodigal son, and it really struck a chord with me. I ended up with quite a lot to say. I thought I’d share it here.
We were asked to speak about the prodigal son today, and pondering this parable and its implications for us has been such an enlightening experience. I will be using a lot of personal examples, because this parable is about individual souls.
I heard a lesson about the prodigal son once where the teacher challenged us to not assume that we were the father, (benevolent, loving, forgiving), but to take a deep look at how we function as the other characters in the story, and that is what I would like to do today. I don’t know that we are ever the father in this story (even if we are earthly parents of earthly children who stray from the gospel) – at its base this is a story about how we interact with God and how we view and react to how others interact with God.
The father in the story runs a household, and one of his sons comes to him asking for his inheritance early. He wants to live his own life on his own terms. The father allows this, and the son leaves. He enjoys his life of reckless spending (did you know that that is the definition of prodigal? It’s doesn’t mean wayward. I had NO idea.) and finally comes to the realization that he has wasted his money and has no further way to support himself. He realizes that the servants in his father’s home have more to eat than he does, and he humbles himself and returns to his father’s home to beg for the chance to be a servant.
We are, all of us, that prodigal child. Every day, in different ways, we step away from our Father’s home and recklessly waste the time that we have here on earth. Some of us do that in big ways and find ourselves far from our Father’s house, some do it in small ways and maybe just find ourselves just outside the door. But every one of us finds ourselves in the position of needing to humble ourselves and return home. Sin makes it impossible for us to have residence in His home or in His presence, and so we return as supplicants.
But as the parable teaches us, the Father is standing with arms outstretched, not even standing- the scripture tells us “when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” . The Lord is always waiting, ready to forgive us when we return. Because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, it tells us in Ephesians that ” you are no longer called outcasts and wanderers but citizens with God’s people, members of God’s holy family, and residents of His household.” – Ephesians 2:19
I bear testimony that no matter how lost or far from God you feel, He knows exactly where you are. I went to college at the University of CA in Santa Cruz, which is about as far from a church school as you can get. It was extremely easy for members to come to college and then just never go to church. A friend and I were stake missionaries, and part of our job was to track down people whose records had been transferred to the student ward and let them know when church was and encourage them to come. Sometimes this was really straight forward, but other times people were quite elusive, especially if they lived off campus. We basically had a list of names in our heads all of the time and we just kept an eye out for them. One of them was Fred.
One quarter toward the end of the year, I was prompted to take a beginning Chinese language class. It sounded insane but kind of fun, and I like that combination, so I signed up. I figured that maybe I’d use Chinese in the future at some point, because I really felt prompted to take it. I went to the first class and realized that it really was just insane. Chinese is extremely difficult, and my other two classes were going to be intense as well. But I decided to stick with it. The next class came, and the next, and I realized that Chinese was not going to happen. I needed to get out of this class or I was going to flunk, but the only class I could transfer into was being taught by a teacher I had taken classes from before and had sworn I would never take a class from again. But it was my only move, and I felt like it was the right one, so I went in and pleaded for him to make space for me in his class, which he did. I showed up to class the next day, this class that I would never have chosen to take, and there was a roll sheet being passed around. I took it and as I went to write my name I noticed the name above mine. Fred. I passed the roll on and then passed a note to Fred that said, “Are you the Fred who is LDS?” His head popped up and he asked how I knew who he was and I told him that we’d been looking for him since the beginning of the year and it was time for him to come to church. And he did.
The Lord knows where we are. He knows our hearts and He knows when we are ready to come back to His house.
But there is someone else in the parable- the older brother of the prodigal son. I said at the beginning that I don’t think we are ever the father in this story, and that’s because we are the son, and we are the older brother, and we get to choose how we respond when those around us repent. In the parable the older brother is resentful and angry about his father’s rejoicing and forgiveness and judgmental of his brother.
As I thought about this, I initially thought, oh, I don’t do that. But then the Spirit chastised me as I realized that, oh yes, I certainly do. There was a situation with a friend of mine, where in my view, she was wronged. Her ex-husband and his new wife went through a repentance process and when they announced that they were being sealed in the temple, I was resentful and angry, just like the brother in the parable. I didn’t feel like they had repented enough, though it was absolutely not my call and none of my business. We are not the father. We do not get to set the terms of other people’s repentance.
In another situation I know, a person committed a sin with very public consequences. They worked very diligently at the repentance process, and were able to return to full fellowship in the church. Everyone in their ward rejoiced with them. But then they committed that sin again. And because the consequences were public and easily seen, everyone knew. And though the person diligently repented and returned again to full fellowship, there were those in their ward, who, like the older brother, were resentful and angry, even going so far as refusing to serve in callings alongside this person.
And this leads me to the thought that has been on my mind for the past two weeks, as I think of the unfortunately large number of my friends who have left the church – do we make our brothers and sisters feel welcome in our Father’s house?
In sixth grade, I had a best friend. We were in the same class at school, and the same class at church. In high school her family stopped coming to church, and when we left for college we lost contact. Speed forward a lot of years, and when Tiny was a baby I found her again, living about 10 minutes away. She had a daughter Zoe’s age and twins Tiny’s age, and we fell back into a deep friendship. We did preschool co op together and play groups, and even though she was still not active at church, she was surrounded by women who were. My friend was the Relief Society Enrichment counselor and invited her to teach a baking class. She led cooking lessons for our church playgroup. She was invited to baby blessings and baptisms.
We loved her and welcomed her regardless of whether or not she was active, and to this day she is not, but we don’t care, we love her and she knows that she is welcome.
Back in college, we got a name at the beginning of the year of someone whose records were transferred, and got in touch with the girl really quickly. We went to visit her and found out that she had a car, which was a huge thing. The campus is up on a big hill, and the church building takes about an hour to get to by bus. But it only takes 20 minutes by car, and so we arranged a carpool every week. But we had too many people and not enough seats. So we asked her if she would drive people to church the next Sunday. She said no problem, and became a regular part of the carpool and was very active in church activities. About a year later as she was preparing to go on a mission, she sent me a card, and thanked me for asking her to drive people to church. She really hadn’t been planning on going to church in college, but we showed up and just assumed that she was active, and we communicated to her that she was welcome and needed, and so she came.
When we treat our brothers and sisters who are returning to their father’s house with real love and respect, they will feel welcome. If they feel like an assignment, or feel judged, they will not.
But what about those who aren’t returning on the time table that we want, or who are in the process of leaving?
Regardless the reason for their leaving, I believe the actions are the same. We love. We listen. We live the gospel and take the opportunity to share it when appropriate, being aware of their comfort level. We listen some more. And then perhaps listen some more. The commandment is for us to love our neighbor. Not love them if they are active, not love them if they are keeping the commandments the way we think they should be. Love them.
I asked a couple of my dear friends, one who has been away from the church for a while, and one who only this week announced her intention to leave what was helpful to them in keeping them connected with the church. I thought their words were so illuminating.
One of them said: “My friends that ask me questions still about spirituality and take my answers and experiences seriously, who do not minimize my feelings or conclusions because I am no longer a Mormon, those have been the most helpful friends. Because honestly it’s pretty terrifying to realize that a church you have belonged to for a decade is no longer where you need to be. Unhelpful: sending the missionaries over (if you feel that strongly that I need a 19 year olds help, come with them please), explaining that my feelings are just Satan, or acting like being offended is the only issue I have. I was offended…by the lack of inclusion and support as I went through a terribly dark night of the soul.”
Because of the time that we have spent talking about her concerns, and the love that we share, I feel comfortable sending her conference talks or other things that come up that are about topics that are meaningful to her. And I have been able to learn and grow so much from the things that she has shared with me from the church that she currently attends.
The other friend said: “I know – from 27 years in the church – that the encouraged response is to see me as fallen, misled, apostate, or in need of “saving.” I hope my friends will sit, listen, and mourn with me, for I am mourning. I feel so loved and supported as people “sit” with me and we muse about questions together, some just said they loved me or sent hugs, and some compassionately shared times they’ve been on the outside as I have. I feel like, often, church members avoid those with doubts or those who’ve left as those with the plague; and yet, Christ was unafraid of those in his own time; he visited them, spoke to them, sat with them.”
If those who have left do not feel welcome, they will not return. If they feel dismissed or belittled, they will not feel that they have a place in their father’s home. May we never say or do anything that gives someone that impression, whether they are a participating member of the Church or not.
Many of my friends who have chosen to leave the church have done so because their feelings were really hurt. I know that we like to refer to that as “they chose to be offended”, but I think often times “they chose to be offended” is a way to not admit that someone made a mistake and said or did something hurtful. Everyone has their agency to decide how they respond to hurtful things, but we also have a responsibility to be inclusive.
One friend took a break from church attendance after a number of weeks of hearing that if she just had more faith she would get pregnant. A number of friends who are converts have a hard time feeling welcome when they hear lessons begin with “Think back to a time on your mission” or “All of us learned this in Primary”. Another friend was exhausted and hurt by criticism of her child’s behavior at church. Yet another felt judged for his decision to wait to serve a mission.
As the saying goes, the gospel is perfect, the people are not- but as Saints we should try to be a little more perfect and aware of what we’re saying. Don’t criticize how people are fulfilling their callings. Don’t assume everyone’s experience is the same as yours. Teach doctrine, not culture.
It’s not stated in the parable, but I can imagine the older brother making the comment to his younger brother that if he really doesn’t like his father’s rules he can just leave. That should never be an option for us.
There should always be a place for everyone in our Father’s home. As far as he is concerned, there is. Our job is to love and wait and welcome our brothers and sisters back to our Father’s home, and to make sure that it’s where we are.