27 March 2022
I was excited to learn that the story of the prodigal son was one of our lessons for today. This is a story not without controversy. It’s challenging because most of us can probably relate to the oldest son who stayed home, did not squander his father’s money on drink and debauchery, but worked hard and obeyed his father. How could this father welcome his wayward youngest son with a party and the cooking of a fatted calf? It makes no sense to the son—and little sense to most of us.
I can relate to the oldest son, railing at his father that he has been loyal and steadfast with little or no reward. Feeling slighted and wronged by people we love is a hard pill to swallow. What about the prodigal son? He to enjoy a hedonistic life, while his brother toiled at home, but he returned when things got tough. Then there’s the father—what are we to make of him welcoming this wayward son with open arms? But what I would like to do is look at this story from a different angle. I suggest that this parable is really about forgiveness and grace.
Forgiveness and grace are intrinsically entwined, but forgiveness is easier to understand than grace. We are taught that to forgive is “divine,” and that we are to forgive our “enemies.” “There is no love without forgiveness, and no forgiveness without love,” as the saying goes. Some of us forgive easily, others not so much. Forgiving our enemies is especially difficult. Our psalm today tells us, “Happy are those whose sins are forgiven, whose wrongs are pardoned.” I believe that God will always forgive our sins, but I contend that forgiving ourselves is the most difficult job of all.
Grace, on the other hand, is more nebulous, harder to pin down, a more ethereal concept. Anne Lamott says, “Sometimes grace is like water wings when you feel you are sinking.” What do water wings feel like? Is she talking about floaties that toddlers use in a pool, or the gentle hand of a parent helping us cross a busy street? Or could they be unseen, unfelt wings that buoy us up and prevent us from drowning? Is grace always available to us? I believe it is, and that grace is a gift from God. It’s that inner voice that leads us to choose right from wrong, to love instead of hate, to forgive our enemies, to forgive ourselves. Our job is to learn to listen to it and give grace space to grow within us, as God intends. Grace is the God juice that enables us to go and see beyond ourselves.
So which comes first, forgiveness or grace? This question is similar to “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”
It has taken me many years to recognize grace in my life, but guess what had to happen before I could see and understand grace? I had to forgive myself. Was I able to forgive myself because of grace? Yes, probably. We all have times in our lives when we feel ashamed, overwhelmed, angry, beaten down, and so on. Trying to claw our way out of despair and grief to get to a point where we can forgive ourselves and recognize the grace in our lives? That’s not an easy road.
I first had to come to grips with my self-perceived failures and inadequacies, my pudgy tummy, and my hair that never does what I want it to do—not to mention my arthritic joints. What are my failures and inadequacies? There were/are so many beyond these. First, I had to recognize what they were, then try to figure out how to live with them. Or better still, move away from them.
When I was in my late thirties, I hit a really rough patch. I was in a pretty unhappy marriage, I had two small children, I smoked a couple of packs of cigarettes a day and drank a bottle of wine most nights. My health was failing, and the hangovers were becoming debilitating. I remember thinking to myself that I would never get well or be happy again. That ended up being a self-fulfilling prophecy, at least for a while. Not long after I recognized that I probably needed to stop smoking, stop drinking, and leave my marriage, I had a pretty major breakdown that ended with me struggling with depression, panic disorder, and agoraphobia for several years. I could not go grocery shopping alone or even drive a car, so I was basically trapped in my house. I could not imagine how I would ever be able to turn my life around.
I remember thinking that maybe I should ask my husband to drop me off on Libby Island in Machias Bay for a month or so, so that I could stop my bad habits and face my mental health issues. Quickly realizing that might not be such a great idea, I then began fantasizing about going to a monastery where I could do the work I needed to do. Finally it came to me that maybe a mental health professional could help, but still it was several years before I reached out for help. I was honestly afraid that they would lock me in an insane asylum and throw away the key, and I couldn’t bear the thought of being separated from my children. Those were really dark days.
I did finally start seeing a counselor, and they didn’t lock me up. In fact, I learned that my issues were relatively common. The first thing I did after starting therapy was to quit smoking, with the help of a smoking cessation class that Joan Miller led at Down East Community Hospital. (Thank you, Joan!) Then I figured that I could finally have surgery on a shoulder that chronically dislocated when I least expected it. Since I had stopped smoking, I was no longer afraid of dying on the operating table from a heart attack. After my shoulder was fixed, I decided that I could stop drinking too. That was more difficult, but after several starts and relapses, I did it. Soon my depression and panic disorder seemed to be abating, which surprised me because I had believed that drinking helped my anxiety. I was able to drive and go grocery shopping. In other words, I was no longer a prisoner of my own making.
When I finally stopped drinking, I felt so much better that I began waking up really early and going to the pool. Now that my shoulder worked properly, I could actually swim again. I also enrolled in classes at the University of Maine at Machias. My marriage was still unhappy, but as I felt myself getting stronger, I realized that I could do something about that, too. My swimming passion took on new zeal, and I decided I was going to swim across Gardner Lake. So I drove to Ellsworth three times a week to work with a retired Navy Seal, who trained me for open-water, long-distance swimming. In the summer of 1997, I did swim across Gardner Lake. I also swam the length of Bog Lake. I also left my husband.
So why am I telling you all this? And how does this relate to the story of the prodigal son? We could compare my foray into drinking and smoking to the prodigal son’s life of prostitutes and parties. We could also liken it to the son who stayed behind and suffered in silence, unhappily doing as his father wished with no rewards. Actually our stories weave in and out of each other, but the true meaning of our stories is that we were all touched by forgiveness and grace.
The prodigal son came home. He had to forgive himself for leaving and his life away from his family. He had to find the courage to come home and face his father. I imagine he worried about coming home and how he could explain himself. He even planned ahead to say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” The prodigal son had to experience many hardships before he saw the light. Every hardship and his decision to make a change in his life were all examples of grace. First came the knowing of the error of his ways, then his forgiveness of himself, and then he was touched by grace in order for him to move forward to a life filled with love, family, and meaning.
The father was certainly touched by forgiveness and grace. He had to forgive his wayward son and appease his angry eldest son, and he did so with unconditional love for both young men. To me, this is one of the truest examples of grace in the Bible. How easy it would have been to turn away his youngest son, while continuing to take his older son for granted, but that’s not what happened. The father welcomed his returning son with joy and gifts, while assuring his oldest son by saying to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” This is such a beautiful example of love, forgiveness, and grace.
I wish Luke had told us what happened to the youngest son. I like to think that he came to understand his anger and was able to forgive himself for feeling that way about both his father and his brother. I hope that he was able to embrace the grace and love that his family enjoyed.
My journey began with a bit of debauchery, a fair amount of anger, and a lot of guilt. While my journey is not over, I have been able to forgive myself. The moments of grace occurred when I quit smoking and drinking, swam across a lake, and found the courage to leave an unhappy marriage. I have often thought of my grace moments as a bit like a snowball that gets bigger and bigger as you roll it. Each step, each time I was able to forgive and allow grace into my life, the snowball got bigger and better.
This kind of journey is interesting. While much of the work is internal, it takes a village. My external supports help keep me standing tall. My husband Don, my children and grandchildren, my church family, my friends. This is life. It is blessed, and there for the taking, and it is also the only one we have. We need to embrace life and learn to recognize when we are given the gift of forgiveness and the gentle touch—or sometimes the great big push—of grace. Amen.
At this shared-ministry church, our worship services include messages by a team of dedicated lay members.