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Chapter 8: Prodigal
About the prodigal son, tantrums and this new thing called Grace.
As we continued to navigate our mixed-faith marriage, Josh decided not to attend church anymore. He had been going to support me, but he wasn’t getting what he needed. He started spending his Sundays relaxing, reading inspirational books and having self-reflection time. I supported his spiritual needs; he was supportive of mine. It was important to me to continue to teach the gospel to our children but also respect where my husband was coming from. It took a lot of compromise, patience, and forgiveness from both of us.
I didn’t know many people in my situation yet, so in February 2017, I joined two Facebook support groups: one for Mormons who have had shifts in their faith and want to stay in the church, and the other for Mormons in a mixed-faith marriage. I needed to connect with other people in a similar situation and learn how they were navigating through it. There were a lot of people there just like me.
I started to feel like I could consider that Josh was on his own valid spiritual path, but even as that idea came into my head, I felt like I was being blasphemous. I don’t recall our church leaders ever teaching that it was ok for people to leave the church to find their own path to God. It was always about them being lost. Rebels. Sinners. The one sheep. The prodigal son.
11. And he said, A certain man had two sons:
12. And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.
13. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.
14. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.
15. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.
16. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.
Luke 15: 11-16
It didn’t seem right to think of Josh as a prodigal son, and I know he didn’t want to be regarded as such. I didn’t think he was weak, rebellious or being led by the devil. He was hurt. I saw his desire to to live authentically, and for him, that meant distancing himself from the doctrines he didn’t believe in anymore and the church that hurt him. He wasn’t going off into riotous living. He still had good morals, loved his family and worked hard to support us. I saw meaningful growth in him and his spiritual and emotional journey. But a part of me did hope that he would eventually return to the church.
Elder Brent H. Nielson of the Seventy said this:
When the lost one is your son or your daughter, your brother or your sister, and he or she has chosen to leave, we learned in our family that, after all we can do, we love that person with all of our hearts and we watch, we pray, and we wait for the Lord’s hand to be revealed. (April 2015)
I decided that I would respect Josh’s unique spiritual path; watch, pray and wait.
17. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!
18. I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,
19. And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.
20. 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.
21. 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.
22. 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:
23. And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:
24. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.
Luke 15: 17-24
One Sunday in July I threw a big ol’ tantrum. I had a tough day at church. I spent the afternoon trying to help my son calm down from a total meltdown and Aster was in a sassy mood. I came home from church and declared that I was going on a walk to talk with God and let Him have it. Josh bravely joined me on the walk while I let it all out.
“This is so hard! I’m so tired. I don’t know how to be the parent of an autistic kid! I don’t know how to parent a gay child! I don’t know how to be a wife to a non-member! This is not what I signed up for! It’s not fair! Growing up everyone told me that if I checked all the boxes, met all the church milestones, that everything would be perfect in my family! Well, I did check all the boxes. I got my Young Women's Medallion! I went to BYU! I served a mission and got married in the temple! And this is the thanks I get??!”
“It’s not fair! That couple and that person didn’t do all the right things! They were rebellious and now they are blessed with obedient, believing kids who go to seminary and serve missions and become valedictorians and concert pianists and get married in the temple and have all the blessings!”
Yes, I went there. I was completely irrational and judgmental and I’m not proud of it. I still feel ashamed. Here I was thinking I was the father in the story, and a lost prodigal child in some ways, but I was actually I had become the elder brother of the prodigal son. I fully stepped into my own self-righteous shit.
25 Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing.
26 And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.
27 And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.
28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him.
29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:
30 But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.
Luke 15: 25-30
From a young age I was desperate to prove my worth to God and make him proud of me. Although I did genuinely find spiritual fulfillment in my church experiences, I had come to believe that perfect obedience was how I earned God’s love. Combined with my people-pleasing personality, perfectionism and the church teachings about qualifying and being rewarded, it’s no wonder I fell into the false belief that I deserved more grace than those who didn’t work so hard at it. That doesn’t excuse my judgmental pride, but it helps me understand what I need to learn.
Not only did I misunderstand God’s grace, it also seemed that the church “formula” wasn’t working for me. You know, the whole qualifying for heaven stuff I wrote about in Chapter 5, Roles, Worry and Fear. Do all the things and you will be rewarded with the perfect Mormon family. I didn’t understand why the formula works for some and not for others. Rationally, I know that life isn’t that simple, but I had really counted on the formula working. There’s a kind of security and surety about having a strict set of rules and rewards to follow, but what happens when we just can’t keep up with it all or the formula doesn’t add up? Shame, failure, fear. Or…grace?
31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.
32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.
Luke 15: 31-32
The father met both sons where they were on their life paths. He welcomed both equally inside his home, into his grace.
What is this mysterious, merciful, eternal grace? I had a lot to learn.