I was fooling around with a friend's Wii Fit a couple of weeks ago, having a great time. At one point, as the machine was evaluating my relative strengths and weaknesses, it sort of hinted at the fact that I could use some work on my core strength; limbs are pretty good, but balance...not quite so much.
Hmmm...I feel a metaphor coming on.
My home church, this Lent, is working with the theme "Come Home" in all things worship-related. We're using the story of the Prodigal Son as a meta-narrative for the season. If you don't know it, here's a version of it--a paraphrase by Eugene Peterson which begins like this:
Then (Jesus) said,
"There once was a man who had two sons.
The younger son said to his father,
'Father, I want right now what's coming to me.'
So the father divided his property
between (the younger and older sons).
It wasn't long
before the younger son packed his bags
and left for a distant country.
There, undisciplined and dissipated,
he wasted everything he had..."
I heard this particular version of the story tonight for the first time. And this stuck with me: undisciplined and dissipated. Dissipated--as if the source of the young man's unhappiness was the fact that he lost track of his core, his essential being, his connection. Dissipated--as if his very self had scattered to the winds.
Huh. Ever felt that way? Ever been distracted by something shiny or something "worthy" or just too many somethings, and lost track of yourself? Of your place in the world? Of those things which keep you tethered to deepest reality? I certainly have.
Lots of times, I've heard this story told as if the young man's main problem was active debauchery. And it's easy to hear it or to read it from a place of righteousness: "WE certainly wouldn't be so overtly selfish and sinful. What a bad boy he was." As if we were the elder brother in the story.
This translation, though, suggests to me that the young man's problem was more subtle, more passive--that he just surrendered, little bit by little bit, his essential humanity. He settled for a lesser version of himself until his hunger and desperation brought him back to his senses. He could then go back home, having lost so much and yet regained that which was truly essential. His homecoming was met with gracious abundance on his father's part.
There's a wonderful hymn by Kevin Nichols in Evangelical Lutheran Worship called "Our Father, We Have Wandered." We sang it last Sunday, and the second verse goes like this:
And now at length discerning
the evil that we do,
behold us, Lord, returning
with hope and trust to you.
In haste you come to meet us
and home rejoicing bring,
in gladness there to greet us
with calf and robe and ring.
We don't often manage that kind of gracious welcome with one another. It's sort of ironic that we so regularly (especially when in groups) react as the elder brother in the story did, lost in our own righteousness--wanting judgment to be meted out to those who have "done it wrong" in many and various ways:
- by daring to be both gay and Christian,
- by daring to be both divorced and Christian,
- by daring to be both mentally or physically ill and Christian,
- by daring to be both homeless and Christian,
- by daring to be both broken and Christian,
- by daring to be both doubtful and faithful,
- by daring to admit that sometimes the only way to God is through a pig sty, or, in short,
- by daring to admit our brokenness and to reclaim our core selves in the company of the body of Christ.
It ain't easy. We make it awfully hard on one another. Vulnerable honesty just makes everyone uncomfortable; it seems a living thing unto itself--and a threatening one, at that. It's unpredictable. It doesn't follow the "rules." Those things which make us authentically ourselves sometimes scare our brothers and sisters out of their (right) minds.
But did you notice that, in the parable, the older son is also called to remember who he is, in the context of this new turn of events? To recall his own identity as a son, a brother, a loving being in the world? He lost track of himself, too--was dissipated as surely as his brother had been--but by his own righteousness, anger and jealousy. His father invited him to remember the joy at his own core...to join in the celebration instead of sitting in judgment and resentment of his brother.
And so, whatever your own vantage point in the story in this particular Lenten season, I ask you these questions:
What is the "home" to which you return?
What strengthens your core?
And I end this post with a prayer of awestruck gratitude for a God that continues to welcome me back, despite my brokenness, despite my righteousness--who collects my scattered pieces and restores me to wholeness over and over again, and who runs out to greet me every time "with calf and robe and ring."