We Can Always Return
WE CAN ALWAYS RETURN
By Nina Palmer
I remember exactly where I paused and had this thought, plodding home from work one evening, “There must be somewhere in the world where people are better than this. This just can’t be what being a grown up is all about.”
I had been living in Mumbai for almost two years. I had fought my parents to move there on my own for what I was certain would be a uniquely creative job opportunity. Having been in an all-girl Catholic boarding school all my life, they probably understood I wasn’t ready to live in a big city by myself, but I was stubborn. Very stubborn. I left them crying at the railway station, certain this was my ticket out of my humdrum existence.
At first, it was thrilling. Working around the clock. Creative and exhausting work. Being pushed to the limits of my understanding. Being out on the streets late into the night. Boys (I didn’t even have brothers.) Absorbing the details of exciting people living even more exciting lives. Long, satisfying conversations with people with differing points of view. Did I mention being out on the streets late at night? The beach in the dark. Night lights. City lights. Endless street food. Bangle sellers. Navigating public transportation on my own. Plays. Concerts. No one to answer to. No one to check on me. A spring in my step. Yes, indeed—it was everything I imagined life in the real world to be.
Of course, there was no time for the archaic practice of church on Sundays anymore. Life was relentless. And following quickly on the heels of Sabbath worship went the habit of daily prayer. I argued that God probably had a few questions for me I didn’t want to answer, so it was best we didn’t talk. Shortly thereafter, I began to rationalize that perhaps He wasn’t real after all, clutching on to my limited knowledge of science. Maybe God was a figment of Catholic school imagination. Looking back, I marvel at how lifelong religious practices so quickly became obsolete.
All this of course set off a slow, predictable spiral into despair. Spiritual darkness enveloped me. Exciting people living exciting lives were really people living with no morals at all. The shocking disrespect, dishonesty, and every-dog-for-himself attitude I battled daily, wore me down. Much of what was going on around me I had assumed only happened in the movies. Which brought me to that slow evening walk, where feeling defeated, desperate and hopeless, I thought to myself, “there must be somewhere in the world where people are better than this. This just can’t be what being a grown up is all about.” I realized the only way to redirect my life was to go home and tell my parents they were right and I was wrong, and my stubborn heart would not give in. I chose to stay in my spiritually suffocating circumstances.
Someone I highly respect would tell me at a later date that God had micromanaged my life. Through a series of miracles I hadn’t counted on, hoped for, or even could have imagined, I found myself in the US a couple of months later.
Someone from our company who was supposed to come to the US and make a presentation at a conference at MIT lost her passport—so I got to come instead.
I almost didn’t make it onto the plane because I got stuck for hours behind a truck that was piled so high it got wedged under a bridge in the middle of monsoon rains. There were no cell phones.
Someone at my office, who figured there had to be some reason I hadn’t shown up, had the presence of mind to call the airline (yes, live people answered the phone in those days), and tell them I was coming.
And so I barely made it onto the plane in my work clothes, sweaty and dirty from moving out of my apartment all day, flustered by my late arrival, and, most importantly, on my way to MIT, with no presentation materials in hand.
Yes, there had been no time to retrieve them from the office. But at least I was on my way out of what felt like hell itself, plucked out of it with no effort on my part. I couldn’t have orchestrated the tiniest part of this miracle even if I had tried.
Fast forward a couple of months, the presentation at MIT (minus the materials) was over, and I had privately determined not to return to Mumbai (In fact, that three week trip would turn into over twenty years). A kind person I met at the conference, out of the two thousand people there, invited me to stay with her for as long as I needed. I found myself with time on my hands and no particular place to be every day. I began to reflect on the previous two years and all I had lost. On the top of my list was my relationship with God, and oh how I wanted to restore that!
It was Easter season, and I was sitting in the local Cathedral for hours on end, wishing, begging, pleading I could have that back. I was no expert on the scriptures, but stories that had been drilled into me in my youth surfaced in my mind and provided me a lifeline—the parable of the prodigal son, and the story of the woman with the issue of blood.
I felt like the prodigal son who yearned to be reunited with his father, despite deep feelings of unworthiness. “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” (Luke 15:18-19). And like the prodigal son, I could not have imagined the immediate and happy result of this yearning. “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” (Luke 15:20). Such was the welcome I felt from my Heavenly Father.
The woman with the issue of blood had exhausted all options for being healed. She knew her only hope was Jesus. She battled the throngs around Him to reach Him, “For she said within herself, If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole” (Matthew 9:21). In those hours of prayer in the Cathedral, I clung to this hope, and I came to learn that, even as unworthy and undeserving as I was (unlike the woman in this story) “the border of His garment” (Luke 8:44) was also within my reach.
I was weak, but these stories made me strong. Hope quickly replaced despair. I knew I could return; I could, like the prodigal son simply, “arise, and go to my Father.”
Before that experience, while I had relied on prayer in my youth, it had never occurred to me that the word of God existed to be a source of strength and comfort and personal revelation to me. It belonged to the world, not to me individually. But since then, the scriptures have become a well-worn friend to go to in good times and in bad, with small trials and big.
When weary from reasoning with a newly minted teenager, I have heard angels call me with encouragement as they did Gideon, “the Lord is with thee, thou mighty man (woman) of valour” (Judges 6:12). And when dealing with challenges that were too much to bear, I have physically closeted myself with (Isaiah 40:28, 29, 31). “Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? There is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength…they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”
As I have studied the Word, a message that has not been lost on me is the inconceivably heavy price Jesus paid to welcome me back, be my Advocate with the Father, empower me, forgive me, bear my burdens, give me a second chance….over and over again. Neal Maxwell called it “the terrible arithmetic of the Atonement”. Not only did He bear the consequences for my sins, but He allowed himself to be mocked, shamed, reviled, isolated, punished as the vilest of sinners instead of veneered as the greatest of heroes, just so that “He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of” and “to succor” each of us individually (Hebrews 2: 17-18).
In big and small ways, I am still, daily, a prodigal child, spiritually awkward, sometimes lazy, fumbling, making many blunders, quick to forget, trying and failing. I wish I wasn’t, but I have learned that—bungling as I am—because of my Savior, Jesus Christ I can always return. The border of His garment is always within reach. I can never fall beyond the reach of His love. There may be a long road to travel to make things right, but, in fact, He is along the path, not at the end of it. No matter where I am, He is always only one sincere plea away. How I love Him!