As I prepared to come home, I thought back on the past 18 months and about the changes I have gone through and also the changes that will be taking place in my life now. It was an adjustment to leave home and wander in a strange land with a new language and culture for 18 months. But for some reason it has been harder- and almost always is harder for return missionaries to adapt being home. I keep putting my hand over my heart to feel where my tag used to be- only to find that it isn't there. And I think it hit me pretty hard when we passed two Sisters out walking in the rain yesterday. While I've been gone, my sister has gotten married, my family has moved to a new home and home ward. My baby sister, Lillie, is now on her second year of high school- so old, and my brother and best friend, Henry, has left for his own mission to Taiwan (or Idaho for now). It is easy to say that I am feeling a little bit out of place.
When I came home just a couple of days ago, I was welcomed home from my journey in Sweden by my loving friends and family... and by a big sign that said WELCOME HOME, made by my wonderful mother which reminded me of a letter my mom wrote to me about how the words "welcome home or welcome back", are the central messages of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I had the opportunity of teaching a Swede named Gabriella just three weeks ago. She is dating a member of the church and had tried learning about the church once before but only wanted to meet with the missionaries to get information- she said that it was hard to accept because it went against everything her parents had taught her. But after many months, she decided she would give it another try, so she prayed to a God that she didn't believe in for a week and then messaged us and said she would like to meet.
My companion and I loved this girl from the first time we met her- and we could already see that her eyes and her heart had been opened. She would meet with us whenever she could, she would keep all of the commitments we gave her, she would take notes during our lessons... she wanted an answer- she wanted to know if there was a God and if there was a deeper meaning to her life.
Like most Swedes, Gabriella had a good life. Everything was going good for her- she was a good girl and she grew up in a good family but also a family that taught her that she was independent and she could do everything on her own- that there was no need for religion because the government takes care of them. But as we taught her, and as she read and prayed and searched with real intent- she discovered that everything we believe in is good and that she felt good and happy when she allowed the spirit to testify truths that she once knew, and had forgotten for a time. I believe that she felt like she was "coming home" even though she didn't know she had been lost.
There is a profound metaphor found in the scriptures about the idea of "coming home" that is particularly illustrated in Luke 15 where we read of three parables. These parables or stories are given by Jesus to the Pharisees and scribes who murmur because He "eats with the sinners". The first story is about a lost sheep, the second; a lost coin, and the third; a lost son. The third parable- The Prodigal Son, is a story of a boy who leaves home and takes his portion of his fathers money and goes into the world. He spends all of his money and has no where to go. So, he comes up with a confession that he thinks will help him obtain mercy from his father. His confession is this: He will return back home and work for his father so that he can earn back the money on his own. In verse 18-19, he says, "I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: Make me as one of thy hired servants." And in Verse 20, "...he arose, and came to his Father..."
In Sweden we taught many Muslims and other non-Christians who believed that this story proves that we can make it home(back to God) without a Savior because the prodigal son "came to himself and came to his father"- on his own he returned home. In the words of a New Testament scholar, Kenneth E. Bailey, those people believe "that [we] are not prevented by original sin or depraved wills and can by [our] own effort, without divine grace, take steps towards salvation." But is this really what happened?
In the rest of Luke 15: 20 it says, "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." This verse shows us that the Father had been waiting. Anxiously waiting for his son to come home. He saw him at the end of the road and he did not wait for the son to get there, he got up and ran and hugged his son and welcomed him home. And as the father runs to his son and embraces him, the sons confession has a new meaning. In verse 21, it says, "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." His sentence changed. He confesses to sinning and not being worthy but he changes his mind about needing to earn back the money on his own, and in a moment of genuine repentance, he accepts to be found. The miracle of this story is not that the Prodigal returns home but that the father welcomes him in and then celebrates him being found. The father does not say in verse 24 that the son "was lost and has come home" but rather he says "he was lost and is found."
The three parables in Luke 15, are all about our Savior, Jesus Christ. He is the Sheppard who searches for the lost sheep, the woman who gets on her hands and knees to search for the lost coin, and the Father who embraces his lost son. He doesn't just eat with the sinners- he searches for them, he runs down the road, showers them with kisses and pulls them in. Shouldn't we as members of the church do the same? On a cold spring day in May, my companion and I sat at a table with a woman named Frida who looked at us with teary eyes and said "I've done everything bad that you could possibly do... What would your church think of me?"
As my dad said in his letter to me a couple of weeks ago, "Isn't it our job as Latter Day Saints to put welcome home signs up for all of our prodigal brothers and sisters? But to put those signs up not to communicate that they were lost and are now found, but to put them up all the time, to always have the vacancy sign flashing for the passer by, to always be ready to welcome the stranger, the weary traveler, and the lost soul. That we make sure that they know they are always welcome home." Our answer to Frida and to everyone should be these words spoken by President Uchtdorf, "Regardless of your circumstances, your personal history, or the strength of your testimony, there is room for you in this church."
In 3 Nephi 9:14, it reads, "Yea, verily I say unto you, if ye will come unto me ye shall have eternal life. Behold, mine arm of mercy is extended towards you, and whosoever will come, him will I receive; and blessed are those who come unto me." In the words of our beloved Prophet, President Monson, "Our Heavenly Father rejoices for those who keep His commandments. He is concerned also for the lost child, the tardy teenager, the wayward youth, the delinquent parent. Tenderly the master speaks to these and indeed to all: come back. come up. come
in. come home. come unto me."
Brothers and Sisters, coming home is not a small endeavor. It is a big deal and it's something we have to do over and over and over again... and we cannot do it alone. We cannot make it home without the love and grace of the Savior. He is begging for us to come to him. I am grateful for the people that I taught and grew to love on my mission who helped me to see that I was in just as much need of repentance as they were. It helped me understand that we are all wanderers. We are all imperfect. We would all return home, unwelcome, if it were not for our Savior- because "no unclean thing can dwell with God (1 Ne 10:21)." I love the words in Alma 34:9, "For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which is expedient should be made."
Return missionaries are typically known for "getting lost" after returning home, because they come from a structured setting of edifying others and they have to now concentrate on their own affairs and not lose grip of what they have gained on a life of altruism and service and sharing and developing spiritual roots. As I flew home, I thought of how I will keep from getting lost. I read notes in my journal that I had taken from my Mission Presidents wife, Sister Newell, who taught me how important it is to do the simple things. She said "These are the things that will get us home: reading from the Book of Mormon everyday- even if it's just one verse, praying, attending the temple regularly, having a gospel conversation everyday, and serving others."
I have a testimony that these simple things are the things that will bring us home. These are the things that remind us to put God first and remind us of our baptismal and temple covenants- to "...stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that we may be in (Mosiah 18:9)." We come home as we turn our hearts to our Father by turning our hearts to our brothers and sisters. I have a testimony of my Savior Jesus Christ. I am so grateful that as a sinner myself, He allows me to have another chance and allows me to return home. I love the words He speaks in the old testament, "return unto me and I will return unto you. Turn to me and I will turn to you. Take one step towards me and I will take two steps towards you."
I love the scriptures. I love the stories that are told. I believe that the Book of Mormon is true and I believe with all of my heart that Joseph Smith is a Prophet of God and that this is the restored Gospel on the earth today. I am grateful for Gods plan. I am grateful for missionary work and I am so grateful for my mission. I am grateful for all of you. For your examples and support and love. And I am grateful to be home.
In the Sacred name of Jesus Christ, Amen.