Courtesy of the Church History Museum
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Return of the Prodigal Son, 1636. Etching. (Courtesy of the Church History Museum, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)

Over the past few weeks, I've been traveling from bookstore to bookstore chatting about the Prodigal Son.

I'd tell you why, but that would be too self-serving.

(OK, one hint: It has to do with my new book, "Rescued," about my years as a prodigal.)

As people would come in each store, I'd start talking with them about my experience. And, almost to a person, they'd get a melancholy look in their eyes. Every single one of them knew somebody — a son, daughter, father, brother — living "out in the desert" wandering "hungry and helpless and cold."

Many had been out there in the cold themselves.

After a while, I decided the Good Shepherd didn't leave the 99 to go looking for the one; he left the 50 to go looking for the other 50.

The Mormon flock, it seemed to me, was a flock of prodigals — some rescued and retrieved, many still stumbling in the wilderness.

After a few days of all this, I began to hatch a few insights.

One of the most famous first lines in literature comes from Tolstoy: "Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is happy in its own way."

By the same token, it doesn't take long to see that happy Mormons are happy in the same way; unhappy Mormons are unhappy in many different ways.

Happy Mormons have not only found their hearts, they've found a way to belong to a spiritual community without giving up their individual identities.

Some people get so engulfed by the LDS community they begin to feel cramped, stifled, resentful and claustrophobic.

Others prize their individuality to the point they soon feel abandoned and isolated.

Like most things in life, getting it right takes balance.

I thought of the older brother of the Prodigal Son, pouting because he felt passed over and ignored. In many ways, he was the true outsider.

He was worried about his father's lack of "fairness."

He needed to fret less about fairness and more about togetherness.

Think of a family gathering — a family reunion, Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas — where some family member has been unable to get there because of work, weather or some other reason. Yet, as the meal was winding down, they suddenly showed up.

They made it.

Did you run out and say, "Where've you been? We had to do all the work and now you show up for the party."

Of course not.

You were just happy to see them. You may have heaped a plate with food for them and made sure they felt warm and welcome.

That's the way Tolstoy's "happy families" do things.

It's also the way religious communities — when they are at their best — do things as well.

I know.

As I've been telling people over and over, I was that guy who showed up late.

Jerry Johnston is a former Deseret News staff writer. "New Harmony" appears every other week in Mormon Times. Email: [email protected]