The following is mostly excerpts from Elder Jeffery R Holland's talk entitled A Robe, A ring, and a Fatted Calf. We have something to be very grateful for this Thanksgiving and that is the gift of the Atonement; the gift of God's Only Begotten Son.
In what may well be literature's most extreme and chilling observation of ... debilitating, unassuaged guilt, we watch Macbeth--cousin of the king, masterful, strong, honored, and honorable--descend through a horrible series of bloody deeds by which his very soul is increasingly "tortured by an agony which [knows no] . . . repose" (A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, [New York: Fawcett, 1967], p. 276). Shapes of terror appear before his eyes, and the sounds of hell clamor in his ears. His guilty heart and tormented conscience rend his days and terrify his nights so incessantly that he says to his physician:
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas'd,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
The doctor shakes his head over such diseases of the soul, and says:
Therein the patient
Must minister to himself.
But the anguish continues unabated until Macbeth says on the day he will die:
Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. [5.5.23–28]
Macbeth's murders are sins too strong for the kind of transgression you and I might discuss [tonight]. But I believe the despair of his final hopelessness can be applied at least in part to our own circumstances. Unless we believe in repentance and restoration, unless we believe there can be a way back from our mistakes--whether those sins be sexual or social or civil or academic, whether they be great or small--unless we believe we can start over on solid ground with our past put behind us and genuine hope for the future--in short, if we cannot believe in the compassion of Christ and His redemptive love, then I think we in our own way are as hopeless as Macbeth and our view of life just as depressing. We do become shadows, feeble players on a perverse stage, in a tale told by an idiot. And unfortunately, in such a burdened state, we are the idiots.
William Wines Phelps's Way Back
In the early years of the Church the Prophet Joseph Smith had no more faithful aide than William Wines Phelps. Brother Phelps, a former newspaper editor, had joined the Church in Kirtland and was of such assistance to those early leaders that they sent him as one of the first Latter-day Saints to the New Jerusalem--Jackson County, Missouri. There he was called by the Lord to the stake presidency of that "center stake of Zion."
But then troubles developed. First they were largely ecclesiastical aberrations but later there were financial improprieties. Things became so serious that the Lord revealed to Joseph Smith that if Phelps did not repent, he would be "removed out of [his] place" (HC 2:511). He did not repent and was excommunicated on March 10, 1838.
The Prophet Joseph and others immediately tried to love Phelps back into the fold, but he would have nothing of it. Then in the fall of that violent year W. W. Phelps, along with others, signed a deadly, damaging affidavit against the Prophet and other leaders of the Church. The result was quite simply that Joseph Smith was sentenced to be publicly executed on the town square in Far West, Missouri, Friday morning, November 2, 1838. Through the monumental courage of General Alexander Doniphan, the Prophet was miraculously spared the execution Phelps and others had precipitated, but he was not spared spending five months--November through April--in several Missouri prisons, the most noted of which was the pit known ironically as Liberty Jail.
I do not need to recount for you the suffering of the Saints through that period. The anguish of those not captive was in many ways more severe than those imprisoned. The persecution intensified until the Saints sought yet again to find another refuge from the storm. With Joseph in chains, praying for their safety and giving some direction by letter, they made their way toward Commerce, Illinois, a malaria swamp on the Mississippi River where they would try once more to build the city of Zion. And much of this travail, this torment and heartache, was due to men of their own brotherhood like W. W. Phelps.
But we're speaking today of happy endings. Two very difficult years later, with great anguish and remorse of conscience, Phelps wrote to Joseph Smith in Nauvoo.
Brother Joseph: . . . I am as the prodigal son. . . .
I have seen the folly of my way, and I tremble at the gulf I have passed. . . . [I] ask my old brethren to forgive me, and though they chasten me to death, yet I will die with them, for their God is my God. The least place with them is enough for me, yea, it is bigger and better than all Babylon. . . .
I know my situation, you know it, and God knows it, and I want to be saved if my friends will help me. . . . I have done wrong and I am sorry. . . . I ask forgiveness. . . . I want your fellowship; if you cannot grant that, grant me your peace and friendship, for we are brethren, and our communion used to be sweet.
In an instant the Prophet wrote back. I know of no private document or personal response in the life of Joseph Smith--or anyone else, for that matter--which so powerfully demonstrates the magnificence of his soul. There is a lesson here for every one of us who claims to be a disciple of Christ.
Dear Brother Phelps: . . . You may in some measure realize what my feelings . . . were when we read your letter . . . .
We have suffered much in consequence of your behavior--the cup of gall, already full enough for mortals to drink, was indeed filled to overflowing when you turned against us . . . .
However, the cup has been drunk, the will of our Father has been done, and we are yet alive, for which we thank the Lord. And having been delivered from the hands of wicked men by the mercy of our God, we say it is your privilege to be delivered from the powers of the adversary, be brought into the liberty of God's dear children, and again take your stand among the Saints of the Most High, and by diligence, humility, and love unfeigned, commend yourself to our God, and your God, and to the Church of Jesus Christ.
Believing your confession to be real, and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy once again to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal.
"Come on, dear brother, since the war is past,
For friends at first, are friends again at last."
Yours as ever,
Joseph Smith, Jun. [HC 4:141–42, 162–64]
It only adds to the poignance of this particular prodigal's return that exactly four years later--almost to the day--it would be W. W. Phelps selected to preach Joseph Smith's funeral sermon in that terribly tense and emotional circumstance. Furthermore it would be W. W. Phelps who would memorialize the martyred prophet with his hymn of adoration, "Praise to the Man."
Having been the foolish swimmer pulled back to safety by the very man he had sought to destroy, Phelps must have had unique appreciation for the stature of the Prophet when he penned:
Great is his glory and endless his priesthood.
Ever and ever the keys he will hold.
Faithful and true, he will enter his kingdom,
Crowned in the midst of the prophets of old.
["Praise to the Man," Hymns, no. 147]
I requested that we sing a verse of that hymn this morning. Next time you sing it, remember what it meant to W. W. Phelps to be given another chance.
The Prodigal Son
Perhaps the most encouraging and compassionate parable in all of Holy Writ is the story of the prodigal son. I close with Mary Lyman Henrie's poetic expression of it entitled "To Any Who Have Watched for a Son's Returning."
He watched his son gather all the goods
that were his lot,
anxious to be gone from tending flocks,
the dullness of the fields.
He stood by the olive tree gate long
after the caravan disappeared
where the road climbs the hills
on the far side of the valley,
Through changing seasons he spent the light
in a great chair, facing the far country,
and that speck of road on the horizon.
Mocking friends: "He will not come."
Whispering servants: "The old man
has lost his senses."
A chiding son: "You should not have let him go."
A grieving wife: "You need rest and sleep."
She covered his drooping shoulders,
his callused knees, when east winds blew chill, until that day . . .
A form familiar, even at infinity,
in shreds, alone, stumbling over pebbles.
"When he was a great way off,
His father saw him,
and had compassion, and ran,
and fell on his neck, and kissed him." (Luke 15:20)
[Ensign, March 1983, p. 63]
God bless us to help each other come back home, where we will, in the presence of our Father, find waiting a robe, a ring, and a fatted calf, I pray in the name of Him who made it possible, even Jesus Christ. Amen.