When the Older Prodigal Finally Comes Home
I lay on the couch in our tiny 2-bedroom condo burning with the fever of pneumonia and shame when the knock came at the door. Outside stood our relief society president and good friend with a carload of gifts she made many trips carting up three sets of stairs. It was more than I had ever seen in my life. I watched helplessly as she arranged them under the tree, explaining that they had come from a family that wanted to gift us and had the means to do so. We had struggled as refugees of a sort, having come with what we could fit in a minivan and small trailer, and we had hit the wall as Christmas approached. I had never been treated so generously before in my life and I cried like a lost soul with a gratitude and wonder that finally penetrated my shame that I hadn’t done this for my children on my own.
Today, as I have every Christmas season since, I immersed myself in the wonder of that moment and relived every particle of joy in it. I joined the church when I was 8 but I was converted to the gospel when I was 40.
It’s such a sad thing that we don’t talk about repentance as coming home, that we don’t talk about the Atonement as Christmas, even at Christmas. We fall into habits of giving gifts as obligations just as we serve to do our duty, and we love each other – we really do – but we seldom talk about adoring or being adored. I learned something that evening a few days before Christmas that I’ll never forget. I learned what it means to be loved even in the midst of your profoundest shame. I don’t think I’d ever served anyone fully and completely before that moment when I felt love to such an infinite degree for myself.
I don’t know that the love we feel for each other reaches its fullest capacity until we have experienced the forgiving love of God for ourselves. We are changed when we accept that love. Love flows freely from us in response. I was 40 years old before I was born again. The people who brought that to me were like missionaries in my life. I will always remember and be grateful.
I’ve been pondering this morning that I didn’t learn that at home. I was cared for by amazing people who ensured I had what I needed but for whom gifts weren’t a significant thing and adoration was not a part of their experience. They were dutiful people, like the older prodigal, but they too had never experienced that kind of adoration and generosity coming to them. They thought their worth was in their fulfillment of their duties and there really was no way for them to experience their full worth because there is no “coming home” celebration for the one who has never left. It’s a quiet realization that comes in the heart some time later when they truly realize that every robe in the house and every ring in the drawer is already theirs, to quote Elder Holland.
My parents couldn’t share the joy of reconciliation with me because they had never experienced it for themselves. I was raised as an older prodigal by older prodigals, just as a very great many latter-day saints are. They joined the church not so much as saved converts but as dutiful servants who found a place that was right and conformed their lives to fit it. They might as well have been 4th generation members except for one thing: they got discipleship. They did not view the church as a cultural addition to their lives or as background music for their party. It was everything. They were enlisted.
But that didn’t mean they knew how much God loved them. They were unconverted but completely committed Church members. I think they know their true worth now, each on their different sides of the veil. But they were even older than 40 when they finally discovered that God adored them. How could they teach me? And I am equally sure that I raised a cadre of older prodigals too. Even now I’m not sure how the home can, even under the best circumstances, coordinate that perfect moment of intense awareness of guilt and eternal love. So many of us experience it, like Enos and young Alma and others, after we leave home.
As I’ve been thinking about what a friend recently told me about a conversation with a bishop and conversations with former bishops on the same subject, I think we don’t know how to teach repentance because we’ve inconsistently experienced it. We teach avoidance of sin with a passion and then the dreaded should-be-unnecessary repentance as penance through time and restriction of freedom. The message is so often punitive. My friend was told by two bishops, “Just don’t do it anymore.” That was it. A present bishop is engaged in teaching more thoroughly the fuller truth of repentance as joyful reconciliation. In the past, the key seemed to be that my friend understood that what had happened was wrong and with some appropriate length of time and the assurance that the sin would not be repeated, it would be fine. Are we teaching repentance as simply giving penance on some kind of debt-repayment schedule? It may as well be a medieval priest we go to.
We don’t need the Atonement if we can pay for our own sins. Do we see how insidious this thought process is?
Repentance is the older brother’s opportunity to have a party given for his return. By simply doing penance for his transgressions, the older brother never experiences the connection of the relationship with the father, the validation, the adoration. He has no idea how much the father loves him and values him because he has paid the price for his own sins instead of approaching the Atonement to do that. That is the death brought by the law that Peter and Paul talked about. For 600 years the Jews, the older brother, had the gospel but not the joy in it. They watched as ten tribes converts joined the church and just as Jesus described in the parable, they felt all the more alone for all their obedience. So many saints today are Apostolic-period Jews in different clothing. One of the hidden truths of the parable of the Prodigal Son is that it’s the people who live in God’s house who are often most ignorant of its power and love.
When I was a young married woman, before I had kids, I served in a young women presidency. I was everything a young women’s leader is supposed to be, according to our church culture. I did all the activities with all the decorations, made handouts for every lesson, had cool sayings on the wall and made tons of posters with the new young women’s values in every color, attended every meeting and every activity with the energy of their appropriate role model: married in the temple and living the dream of serving them. I was always smiling (unless I was crying appropriately in a spiritual setting). Then after a year or so my marriage wasn’t happy, I was pregnant and my husband had turned cold, and all that serving made me tired. I couldn’t summon those smiles beyond Sundays. I couldn’t understand why the church didn’t fix my life.
So I asked to be released and I began trying to figure it out. I read the Book of Mormon through, really searching for the first time. I began to find the gospel in it. I began to see that this was going to take a long time, this discipleship, and there were no guarantees of comfort here and now. But I didn’t really get the Atonement until I was 40 and people I didn’t know gifted us, refugees with little to our name, with an outrageously abundant Christmas, just at the moment that I realized I was completely incapable of doing anything right. I didn’t really understand the Church until I was converted to the Gospel, and that didn’t happen until one day I made my way home to a party especially for me and the loving, tearful embrace of a Father who was so glad I’d finally returned. I joined the Church when I was 8 but I wasn’t converted until I quit trying to pay for my own sins, buy my own presents, and hide from God’s presence because I was imperfect.
Now I don’t get tired. Now the smile comes naturally. Every night there is a celebration as I come home, embrace the Father, tell him about my day, ask for his help to overcome things, and listen as he outlines our work for the next day. I’m home and every day is Christmas.
What if we talked about repentance like that? What if that is the Christmas story?