I left my faith for many years, then returned and was startled by the anger of others of my faith who were angry that God was still waiting for me. It seemed they felt that I had forsaken my birthright and that I did not "deserve" to be a member of my faith anymore because I had sinned, because I had spoken against the faith, because I had changed. But I feel that God welcomed me home and killed the fatted calf for me. He carried me on His shoulders and rejoiced with me.
In the traditional story of the "Prodigal Son," the younger son asks his father for his inheritance and then leaves his home and "wasted his substance with riotous living." It is only when he is becomes a swineherd and is so hungry that he wants to fill his belly with the husks the swine are fed that he realizes how bad his life has become, and decides that he will go home and ask his father is he can be a servant. He says, "Father, I have sinned against Heaven and against thee. And am no more worthy to be called thy Son: make me as one of thy hired servants."
Anyone who has been through a difficult trial must recognize this moment. I didn't take my father's money and have fun with it. There was no "riotous living" here, unless you count doing triathlons as riotous living. I was broken by the death of my daughter and in an attempt to survive the depression that hit me as a result of that, I gave up my belief in Mormonism and my belief in God. I continued to attend church, but it was a sham. Everything that I did was a sham. I was a hollow shell of a person who was unsure if anything would ever fill the shell again.
I think we all go through phases like this, for different reasons. Maybe your reason for becoming a prodigal was that you were busy going to college and figuring out what you wanted with your life. Maybe you became a prodigal because you were hurt by something someone in your religion said or did to you. Maybe you became a prodigal because you were told there was no place for you in your religion. Or because you sinned and felt too guilty to ask forgiveness and return to church. Maybe you really did enjoy riotous living for a while. Or you were ill and simply had no energy for religion.
The story of the Prodigal Son is about all of us, because it doesn't matter what reasons took us away from God. It only matters that He is always waiting for us to return, with open arms, without questions or recrimination. And perhaps it is the story about all of us because there will always be those who tell themselves that they did nothing wrong, that it isn't fair that God still loves us, that it isn't fair that we came home and were treated kindly. They want to believe that something is still going to be withheld from us because we were too sinful, that we ruined our lives, that we deserve to be servants instead of God's children.
I also think it's instructive to notice the difference between the Prodigal Son's attitude and the Father's. The son is downcast. He tells his father he's unworthy, that he just wants to be a servant. The father, on the other hand, is ecstatic. He puts "the best robe" and a ring on his son and shoes on his feet. He calls for a celebration, with the best food and with music and dancing. He tells his whole household to "be merry." There is not a single moment when the father thinks about the inheritance his son took or about the years he spent spending money wastefully. He isn't interested in recompense for his losses or in sorrow over sin. He doesn't ask the son to make apologies.
What do we learn from this? Instead of spending time pointing fingers at others about their sins, shouldn't we celebrate more? Celebrate what? Everything. We should celebrate the return of our friends and neighbors and children to our midst. But also, we should celebrate every day the things that are wonderful in our lives. We shouldn't spend a moment looking back at sin or sorrow. We should only look forward to the good things that are in our lives now. We should embrace those who are around us and who love us, whatever has brought them to us.
Now, as for the other son, who heard the celebration from the fields and asked a servant why this was going on, and heard second-hand the story of his brother's return, and was angry and would not go in and join in the celebration, what do we have to learn from him? He says "Lo these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed at any time they commandment: and yet, thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends." It is important to understand that this response is a lie. None of us has "never transgressed." It is pride that makes us say and believe such things. Also, the idea that God never celebrates us is a lie. We must seek in our own hearts if we think this for a moment and remember that every day with God is a celebration and if it isn't, it is our fault and not His.
The father's response is "Son, thou art ever with me and all that I have is thine." When we are with God, we are always well-fed. We are always clothed and have shoes on our feet. We are always blessed and cared for. The idea that the prodigal takes away from any of us is wrong and selfish and prideful. But more importantly than that, it takes away our own joy. Why not join in the celebration? Why not dance with the music? Why cling to our pride and unhappiness instead of rejoicing with God that another has returned? Any unhappiness we have is always of our own making, and the prodigal who returns is one who has recognized this. So you, too, are a prodigal. You, too, must return. And I will celebrate with you, even if you think you are already home.