That He May Heal You

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“Surely the thing God enjoys most about being God
is the thrill of being merciful,
especially to those who don’t expect it
and often feel they don’t deserve it.”
Elder Jeffrey R Holland

Dear Will:

We’re not really sure why he left. Maybe he thought the old man was too far past his prime to run the place. Maybe somebody said something that made him mad or hurt his feelings. Perhaps he was simply tired of being weighed down by high expectations, of having to live a certain way or having to be a certain kind of guy. Or maybe he just no longer believed in what he was doing anymore.

But for whatever reason, he finally walked away, leaving behind the only life he had ever known and all of the advantages and privileges that came with it. Forsaking the promise of a too-far-distant reward, he cashed in his inheritance and entered the enticing world of “anything goes”—where he could do or be whatever he wanted and no one would be standing by to raise an eyebrow or to sharply remind him of how his choices might besmirch the family name. Thus liberated from obligations and responsibility, he experimented, indulged, spent time and money as he never had before, did things he had been taught he should not do. And all too quickly, the inheritance ran out, “wasted,” we are told, “with riotous living.”

And then, as so often happens in life, extraneous circumstance complicated the natural consequences of choice. Famine brought widespread economic hardship, so that when he had spent every last penny and found himself compelled to look for work, there were no good jobs to be found. Ere long, he who was born to privilege, and had but recently enjoyed some degree of personal wealth, found himself settling for what work he could get. So it was that he was hired on as a farm laborer, assigned (one suspects, with some degree of horror) to feed the hogs—unclean beasts according to the religion of his youth.

Close your eyes and it’s easy to imagine him sloshing about his daily chores, nostrils filled with the foulest of stenches, boots covered in unspeakable muck, doling out table scraps to the swine while his own belly remained unfilled. The humiliation of it must have been soul-crushing. Hungry, ashamed, brokenhearted and contrite, he reached such a lowly state that he finally “came to himself,” and in a moment of clarity recognized a potential way out.

Was it possible, he wondered, to ask his father for a job? His father’s servants always had food in their stomachs, didn’t they? And you could be sure that no one in his father’s employ would be asked to slop the hogs. But could he truly go home again after what he had done? Could he ever be forgiven for his foolish choices, his hubris, his transgressions against the family name?

Although he must have felt unbearable emotional anguish, his physical hunger was even greater. Desperate, willing to do anything to reclaim his broken life, he quit his job, put on the best of his tattered and splattered clothes, and began the long walk home.

As he walked, no doubt he rehearsed and re-rehearsed the words that he would speak when he finally arrived back on his father’s doorstep. He would acknowledge his transgressions against God and family and beg forgiveness. He would pledge renewed faithfulness and hard work. He would disavow his vices and welcome whatever conditions might be placed upon him if only he might be granted the lowliest assignment, the most meager of wages, among his father’s group of servants.

His father, in turn, would be fully justified if he ranted a bit, lectured sternly, questioned his son’s judgment, and lamented the tragic waste of time and money and opportunity. What’s more, there might be a time of agonizing uncertainty while his father paced and raged, leaving his wayward son to feel the full extent of a parent’s disappointment. But the young man would willingly endure all of that and more because he felt that he deserved it—and, let’s be honest: He had nowhere else to turn.

Were this a true-life story, that might be exactly how it played out. But this is an allegory, originally told by the Master Teacher who had a different lesson in mind. The ultimate message in this story is less about disobedience and repentance than it is about love and forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus tells it this way:

    And he arose, and came to his father. But 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.
    And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.
    But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:
    And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:
    For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. . . . (Luke 15:20-24)

As you envision that scene, please notice how the moment of reconciliation plays out. The father in this tale does not stand proudly in front of his house, forcing his despondent son to complete the long, difficult walk home alone. Rather, when the son is still “a great way off,” the father in this case runs to him, literally shortening the journey back to family and fellowship. As soon as the son has finished his sincere expression of regret, the father envelops him in love and security—restoring the benefits and honor set aside for his children. The natural consequences of the son’s choices have apparently been punishment enough, so that rather than castigate the prodigal for his wastrel ways, the father instead focuses on celebrating his return.

At its very core, the story of the Prodigal Son is the story of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Its promise is intended to fill all of us with hope that, no matter what we may have done and no matter why we may have done it, we can all “come to ourselves” and turn back toward our Father, who will certainly run to us, accept our contrition and make us whole once again. In the Book of Mormon He says it this way: “Will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you?” (3 Nephi 9:13).

That invitation extends to all of us. Who among us has not found him or herself in a similar, lowly state? Who hasn’t at some point made regrettable choices that have caused us to drift ever farther from our Heavenly Father? Even if we may not have been as willful as the prodigal in this story, we can certainly relate to his state of regret and longing for home. Whether we have walked away literally or figuratively, we certainly know what it’s like to feel cut off, wrung out, desperate for help we may feel unworthy to ask for.

It’s true that we do not know why the Prodigal Son wandered off. But ultimately it doesn’t matter. Whether someone has hurt your feelings, or you’re tired of the Gospel’s high expectations, or you have made unwise choices, or you resent the Church’s lofty standards, or you have lost your faith in those in charge, or you’re simply not sure what you believe anymore, may I invite you to turn back toward home? Whatever might be your current source of pain and longing and disaffection, return unto the Savior that He may heal you. Reclaim your divine inheritance which—no matter what choices you may have made or may yet make—will never be fully spent.

I express my own faith in the promise of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and in the healing power of His Atonement. As one who is also prone to wander, I am well familiar with the long road home. Come. Let’s walk that road together.

PW

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I Assure You: They’re Not

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Dear Will:

I recently spoke with a friend who has not attended church in quite some time. After she shared with me a tender story about what had brought her to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the first place, I felt compelled to ask: “Then why have you stopped coming?” She responded with a common, sad sentiment: “I don’t feel worthy.”

My heart sank. Worthy? As if any of us is ever truly worthy! Her words left me troubled, puzzling over our human propensity to shun God due to our nagging imperfections. And I’ve concluded that this tendency leads to several persistent and problematic misconceptions:

1. We act as if we could hide from Him –This notion has been around approximately forever. You’ll recall that after Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit, they heard the voice of God and hid themselves for shame (see: Genesis 3). They seemed to think that they could hide transgression behind a bush. Likewise, sometimes our indiscretions make us too ashamed to pray or attend church when those are just the things we need in an hour of weakness. “Oh,” you say, “but how could I ever come before Him after what I’ve done?” To which I say: How can you not? He knows already anyway. And He wants to help.

2. We feel that we’re not good enough – I hear this one all the time. “All of those people at church are so much better than I am.” Without going into detail, let me put it this way: NO THEY’RE NOT! In truth, we all have our weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. It is those weaknesses that draw us together. You’ll recall that Jesus was once criticized for socializing with sinners, to which He responded: “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick” (Matthew 9:12). His invitation was to all—especially to those who might feel unworthy. He said: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). You’ll note that He didn’t say: “Come unto me, all ye that already have your act together.” Paul reiterated that thought when he said: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That includes, by the way, whoever sits next to you in Sunday School.

3. We believe we can never be forgiven – The scriptures are full of examples of those who felt that forgiveness was no longer possible for them. Yet Jesus was (and is) consistent in His willingness to extend forgiveness to all. And let’s be clear especially about this: You can never be worthy of that forgiveness; you can never earn it. He gives it freely. In this regard, His grace is truly sufficient—no matter what you or I may have done to make ourselves unworthy. In truth, nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). Nothing. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland put it this way: “Surely the thing God enjoys most about being God is the thrill of being merciful, especially to those who don’t expect it and often feel they don’t deserve it. . . . [However] far from home and family and God you feel you have traveled, I testify that you have not traveled beyond the reach of divine love. It is not possible for you to sink lower than the infinite light of Christ’s Atonement shines” (“The Laborers in the Vineyard,” Ensign, May 2012.)

I hope by now you have recognized in all of this an implied invitation, which I will now make explicit: Come join us on Sunday at the Santiago Creek Ward. You’ll fit right in. I’ll be saving you a seat in Sunday School.

PW

Which Makes Me Think of You

Dear Will:

I was puttering around the kitchen the other day when my wife, Dana, hollered from upstairs. She needed me. RIGHT NOW.

She was frantic. While changing the cartridge in her printer, a drop of ink had plopped onto the carpet, leaving a dark, unsightly spot. Immediately she tried to wipe it up, but all she managed was to smear it around and make things worse. So the two of us dashed around the house, pulling various cleaning products out from under various sinks until we found a couple of options that we hoped might do the trick. We weren’t successful the first time, but eventually we found just the thing. It looked like just some clear liquid, but properly applied it was magical. It took a little work, but after some vigorous rubbing with a damp cloth the blotch was gone—wiped clean, as if it had never been there before. And I thought to myself: How is that even possible?

Which, in turn, made me think of Enos.

From what we can tell, Enos was a rather sinful guy. He described a life-turning day in the wilderness when he went out to hunt but never lifted his bow. That day, as he reflected on his life and circumstances, he began to wrestle within himself, struggling perhaps with the conflict between his “natural” impulses and the enticings of the Holy Spirit that engendered in him a desire to rise up and become a better man (see: Mosiah 3:19). He began to hunger for a signal from God—some indication that he might be forgiven of his wayward ways. So racked was he, so burdened by the weight of regret, that all day and night he prayed, and yet relief would not come. Finally, after many heartwrenching hours, he heard the voice of God: “Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.” In that very instant, Enos’s guilt was swept away—as if it had never been there before—leaving him both overjoyed and puzzled: “Lord,” he wondered,  “how is it done?”

Which, in turn, made me think of Jesus.

The promise of the Atonement is that we can be freed of our earth-stains, made clean by the blood of Christ. His blood, said John, “cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). That cleansing power is freely offered by the Savior to all—not just to Enos, but to every person on the face of the earth. And it’s a good thing: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Including me. One of the primary reasons I go to church each week is to partake of the sacrament,  a sacred representation of the cleansing blood of Christ. It is an opportunity to be made whole—unblemished—on a weekly basis. Or as the scripture says: “And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day” (D&C 59:9).

From time to time we all say or do things that we regret, make mistakes or commit transgressions for which we would like to be forgiven. So each week in the Santiago Creek Ward a big group of us sinners gather to partake of the sacrament together—to allow that clear liquid to make us clean. As we do so, we experience the renewal of spirit promised by the prophet Isaiah: “Though your sins be as scarlet,” he wrote, “they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:18). I am so grateful to be blessed with such friends, so privileged to receive that weekly gift from God, so eager for others to enjoy that blessing with me.

Which, in turn, makes me think of you.

PW