The Prodigal Son

 

 

I never post sermons on here. They tend to sound antiseptic on here. Plus: I don’t tend to be that grammatically correct.

However, I was looking at a very familiar passage last week for Mothering Sunday (my least favourite Sunday ever. Most books/web pages that give ideas for all age stuff for this day make me almost wretch. Maybe I shouldn’t have written that: but that is why I blog): Luke 15:11-32, the story of the Prodigal Son. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then a tendency not to listen.

As I began to doodle/make notes on Monday, a line came to me, I wrote it down and kept writing. 

As I said last week; I don’t want to say ‘God gave it to me’ (cos when you hear it, you end up thinking ‘I can see why: probably glad to get rid of it), but this is it. It is a ‘narrative sermon’. The last time I wrote one was about a dozen years ago. Maybe the writing itself was therapeutic: it is certainly no great beauty and neither is is autobiographical.

It is, however, very long….

So I am stood under the hot Galilean sun, sweating, wondering.

 I came here for a break; I wasn’t focussing really….

I was with the crowds listening to a holy man talking. Sometimes hearing them makes the fog life a bit. I couldn’t follow what he said about sheep and coins: too busy thinking about life…my life. Sometimes it gets you like that: the best things can happen and you miss them; too much going on.

I have been faithful: worked my turn at the synagogue. Always been there for people; I think. A decent bloke: never did any harm to anyone. It’s a cliché, but I thought it was true.

Then he started talking about sons- my attention lifted- his words cut through the fog of worry. I have sons: my youngest is trouble…can’t work out what is going through his head most times. The wife and I have almost come to blows…. Once he was easy: I remember nights when he would sink into my arms and I could smell that sweet child smell. Then he grew and changed- wife says he is still the same- but I can’t see it. His friends mean more to him than us & I can’t stand most of them.

Anyway, where was I? Yes: this Rabbi & that story. It wasn’t just the mention of the sons; it was what the youngest one did. He asked for half his share of the wealth. At that point I just shouted out ‘No: this ain’t right’ and people around me said ‘shhhh’ and got angry. I wanted to hit them- glared at them. And he…..Jesus…just stopped and looked at me.

Asking for half your father’s money and property! That is ridiculous…

But then suddenly I could see in his son, my son. I mean he has never asked for that, but I can sometimes see that look in his eyes ‘I WISH YOU WERE DEAD’. That is what that younger son was saying: well once Jesus said that I started listening- I was furious. And then he leaves…walks away.

At first I thought ‘Good riddance’, but I was sad- I mean, mine, I don’t understand him….but going away? I hope he will eventually be like the others- settling down in the same village, getting a trade: supporting us. But then in the story- silly sod, he went and wasted all that money. I mean I’d like a bit of that freedom- what it was exactly Jesus didn’t say, but I could imagine what ‘dissolute living’ is like….I’ve watched others try it on: outwardly disapproving but inwardly thinking ‘I want a bit of that’.

And it is a good story with a moral: he ends up feeding the pigs. I didn’t like a Rabbi talking about pigs; thought it was just trying to scandalise us unnecessarily. At that point I was satisfied: it should have ended there though with ‘no one gave him anything’. You do bad: you walk away- you may have your fun, but I remember those words ‘Vengeance is mine says the Lord’.

———————————————–

But he kept going- I didn’t need the speculation. The good morality tale had calmed me down- gave me order in this strange world…. Then he starts talking about what the son did. At first I thought; well he is going on a bit, like Rabbis do- they can never quite finish their story if they think they have made a good point….. but the son comes to his senses and ….wait….. ‘whoa there’.

Stop right there…he wants to go back home and be a slave. Well this is just wrong. This wouldn’t happen. I told you I was wound up: I wanted a simple story- something to pick me up, give me strength and I thought I had it. There is no way back from here. But he told the story so well that I stayed and listened, just managing to keep the anger at bay.

The son’s calculations were ok, I suppose- I mean it is meant to be a story. By rights, he should be flattened- you’ve made your bed, now lie in it…. But the grovelling was pleasing. I have often imagined people who have crossed me doing just that; it is satisfying; I guess we all long for that secretly sometimes…someone coming back crawling.

But I was disturbed from my day dream as he started to talk about me…sorry, the father. I was about to yell out ‘Just bloody stop right there….STOP IT’….. I don’t behave like that. We don’t behave like that, us men. Especially me. You don’t run, you don’t show your emotions like that…. He does not deserve anything like that- ever. I don’t understand what would have driven the Father to wait and wait either.

That word ‘compassion’- it ain’t just a feeling: the kind of thing you experience for a bit before your stomach rumbles and you think ‘Time for tea.’ It describes your whole body filled with emotion, longing, hope, reaching out…. I have never felt like that. He did….and he ran and he ran….despite myself I began to feel elated and full of joy and pain, and longing and Hope…… and I didn’t know why. And the crowd began to look at me…must have thought I was insane. I thought I was insane….

And the hugging, the ring, the fatted calf….I mean I was by this stage…. Not angry… but puzzled…well I didn’t know what I was thinking. It somehow all made sense…although I did not know what sense. Just that the hot sun which was annoying- just something else that made the day wrung out, bland…suddenly seemed wonderful and alive.

———–

Then he started talking about the other one- the older son who had been faithful but angry…. I wasn’t paying so much attention by then. Although I did wonder how my other sons would behave if this had happened. You know: I think they would be ok. Maybe it is me that had to change.

Man, I was lost- I just stood there & then sat down, smiling, relieved, lost in the moment. After a while I became aware of a shadow…it was him. He looked at me and smiled. I smiled back.

‘Thank you’. I said

‘You’re welcome’ He said ‘But what for?’ He continued.

‘The story…I mean I don’t normally like stories…I wasn’t ready for one… not today. But that one hit the spot. So thanks.’

‘So: what are you going to do?’

‘Go back: tell him. My son. Before it is too late’

‘And what then?’

‘Dunno- maybe Love more, judge less, give thanks more…I’m not sure’

‘How about follow me…sounds like you are on your way already’

‘Maybe’

And that was it….he moved on…. And I went back home. Things were different. Well- I was different. I felt I had come back ‘Home’ (with a capital H)- the place where I had started out from but got lost on the way. Even though things were different, many things were not resolved- they never are….. but Home & looking for those away from Home. That’s more what I do now.

Sunday Prayer

I am not sure what source I got this prayer from. It is written in child friendly language and is simple and lovely. 

I am in the middle of 2 weeks looking at Luke 15: my all time favourite book in the Bible.

In a week when the USA charity ‘Word Vision’ found itself in a media storm over it’s decision not to discriminate against same sex couples in a legal relationship & then- faced with a tide of people cancelling their charitable giving, reversed their decision, I think it is apposite.

‘Cos- in the words of my favourite ‘Over the Rhine’ song: All my favourite people are broken’

Lord, you sat at the same table as sinners. No one was an outcast from your hospitality and love. We gather before you today, an ill-assorted bunch, all sinners but welcomed by you. Thank you, generous, searching Lord for seeking out and saving us.Amen.

Saturday thoughts…

‘We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves’.

This week someone sent me one of those Facebook memes that appeals to my vanity: ‘tell me something about yourself when you were xx’. That ‘xx’ is nothing about my chromosome count or sexuality, but rather a specific age: in my case 25.

It was fun, but it was also painful: 23 years gone (I am 48) and it feels like almost no time at all. It was hard to think of all the mistakes and dead ends pursued during those years. Difficult too to think of all the misunderstandings that I have seen and contributed to. I have never understood why someone would want ‘My Way’ at their funeral- as regrets I have had a lot.

Also, sometimes I wonder what I will do when I grow up.

And if all that sounds maudlin and/or bleak, one of the good things I have learned (and am still learning)in the last 23 years is not to pretend to be other than I am & to be ok with that.

(The quote is by Thomas Merton by the way- but then you probably knew that)

Friday Music

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I like charity shops. The last 12 years have not exactly been abounding with mountains of surplus income, so we have used them to supplement the ‘stuff’ in the house. Mostly I like them for the books and the CDS/DVDs: Netflix and downloads have been a boon to a minister with a music/pop culture fixation.

Occasionally, under the many many copies of ‘Robbie Williams sings 1950s advertising jingles’ and ‘Atomic Kitten: the grime & hardrock years’, I unearth a gem. Actually, I enjoy the searching more than the finding (which just about describes my life.…). That happened to me a couple of weeks ago..

I love the music of Sigur Ros; it often lifts me out of where I am & somehow suspends me in time. I had been tracking ‘Hvart/Heima’ for a while: one disc studio recordings that never made the cut (unusually for a band, these are good) and one side ‘live’- not in front of an audience but recorded ‘one take’ in a hut in the middle of their native Iceland. All this for an incredible £1.09! I tell you: I was so excited I nearly went into the newly opened bread shop nearby & bought a loaf of sour dough bread. But no: enough excitement & reckless expense for one day.

The above is one that I have started to play again and again & have begun to lose myself in it….

Bad poetry…

It started a few weeks ago.

Someone gave me a blank book with the kind of page finish that makes you want to write slowly in fountain pen. I had had it for a while, but suddenly a couple of weeks back: a line of words came into my brain, then another and another and slowly I discovered I was writing poetry. ‘Actually, ‘a line of words came into my brain’ sounds awfully like the singer who said: ‘God gave me this song’ & when you listen to it you know why: it was so bad He couldn’t wait to get rid of it.

Not good poetry- not the kind I would actually let anyone see (although if anything is reasonable I may put in on here, but sparingly) & definitely not the kind that rhymes ‘dove, love, God above’ &  floods your inner soul with sweet, syrupy saccharine. But it is something that has helped me vocalise things when I am feeling like a contradiction within a contradiction.

Words never comes to plan or order…..certainly not when I am sitting there & waiting….but a line or 2 often comes when I am distracted or at ease & then it all pours out. Mostly it clunks: the need to write results in clumsy metaphors and predictable cliche. Just occasionally though there is a line or a phrase where I look and think ‘I made that’. and it becomes worth it.

I will keep it under lock and key: promise. But it makes me think: shouldn’t everyone have a similar book- for headspace, for an inner life?

An occasional Lent series:4

Back in late ’84, in my first term as a student, my dad sent me £10. That was quite a sum then (I am sounding like ‘Grandpa Joe’). I wanted to spend it on something: not just add it to general ‘spends’. Actually, as a student I was frugal and probably spent more on tea than booze.

So I thought and thought and then realised that what I really wanted was a copy of ‘Lord of the Rings’. Someone at VIth form used to affectionately call me ‘Gollum’ and I used to like ProgRock: which would be nowhere without mythical beasts, LOTR references and absence of real, human emotions. So, I was curious.

The thing is, I did not just want any old copy, but three books; in a slipcase. This was ‘living’ to me: I could be a proper adult. I have read these three books in their entirety several times since then, the last time only a few weeks ago. Although I care for books (don’t get me started on people who break book spines straight away), after 30 years they are battered. More so, since my 10 year old son in a bid to feed his ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘Hobbit’ obsession, borrowed one. He does not care for keeping books in pristine condition.

When I got married, it was almost the only ‘serious’ novel I had ever read, apart from those school had compelled me to read. Even now, I open the books from time to time and smell them (this is strange: I am not sure that anyone else does this...) and am still reminded ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’ (possibly the first Proust reference I have used in mixed company) of what that time felt like.

The thing is, I could easily replace them, lulled into a false sense of consumer need by advertising. Maybe I could get a Folio copy or something more pristine with quality, matt white pages? I could display them on a coffee table to display my good taste and innate, understated, quality.

Lent is a time to resist lies like that: display your battered, uncoordinated books and use them for what they are meant for- reading, not aspirational lifestyle accessories.

You must always acheive…

A while back, I reread Eugene Peterson’s ‘Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity’. I always get something out of his books: thoughtful, real and well written and an antidote to the ‘do more and everything will be ok’ school of being a minister.

I happened across a story he tells (p154) about talking with another minister in a diner (this is set in America). When he came out of the ‘washroom’ (doncha just love quaint euphemisms?) he returned to find his friend talking with the waitress for a while. Peterson continues:-

‘Tom was wistful as he talked about how often this waitress evoked the best in him by her questions and interest in God. Then he said ‘I wish I could spend a lot more time at this sort of thing. I sometimes have the feeling that I am more of a pastor in this diner than I ever am in my church study.’ I asked him ‘Why on earth then don’t you do it more?’ He looked at me in a kind of suprise: ‘Where would I get the time? And besides, that is not what they are paying me to do, is it?’

Peterson laments this departure from what pastors have always been expected to do.

I don’t claim to be an expert in what he describes as ‘spiritual direction, but recently I have tried to walk more or take the roundabout route. I usually end up bumping into people: sometimes I have similar conversations. Sometimes I have random, unforced conversations (I had a lovely hour or so a couple of weeks back when I forgot a meeting wasn’t on & ended up talking with 2 groups of people) that just happen. Occasionally they become moments like Peterson describes.

The thing is, I like it when that happens: the colour seems to come back into what I do. Maybe people start thinking more about God and life when that happens or maybe they just think ‘O no: that stupid man is coming my way again’. I do not know.

The thing is, with a contracting financial base and more pressure to evaluate and justify what ministers ‘do’ (which sometimes seem to be a case of trying to be as busy and achievement focussed as possible; we can save ‘Grace’ for Sunday sermons and not for life thank you very much), this essential ‘being’ seems to be neglected or valued less.

….and I for one am sad about that….

A letter

I do not write letters any more: at least not by hand. The PC is easier and my handwriting is poor. I find that to be a sad admission; thinking carefully about each word, the spelling, grammar and the feel of pen across paper seems a much more thoughtful and meditative process.

This was bought home to me last week. I have a couple of church councils this week &, as usual, there are apologies. Someone saw me face to face last week, gave me a letter and said ‘I am giving my apologies’. I opened the letter and there was a brief two sentence note saying that they could not attend and giving a reason why.

That was it: and for some reason I found that unaccountably lovely. I am often in a hurry- my apologies for non attendance are verbal or a quick email & occasionally I forget.

This person had taken the trouble to write. I cannot bring myself to throw the letter away: it is a reminder of someone’s thoughtfulness and a reflection of the different pace with which they live their lives. It makes me think that a different world and a different way is possible; it may be less ‘public’ but is certainly more present to the ‘now.’

Singing old hymns

This morning, I will be doing something that I rarely do: using almost exclusively ‘old’ hymns. Normally I don’t do this: I like a mix of styles/meters/ages.

I am doing this as the church I am talking to is contemplating extreme change. I reckoned that when doing that, it would be good to use some really old hymns that many regard as ‘traditional’ and therefore ‘safe’. The irony is that most of them- once you decode the language and culture- are not. Many of the best talk of movement, change and a restless God who is always searching, looking…… and a church that is not about us and our needs.

Human nature is, after a while, to close up: ‘this is mine, I like it: please don’t change it. If anyone else wants to be a part of it: we are here; just be like us.’ Churches can follow this pattern & part of the role of a minister is sometimes to say ‘Hey- it was never meant to be like this.’

This is one of the hymns: archaic wording, but the sentiments excite me….

Come, let us sing of a wonderful love,
Tender and true, tender and true,
Out of the heart of the Father above,
Streaming to me and to you:
Wonderful love, wonderful love,
Dwells in the heart of the Father above.

Jesus the Saviour this Gospel to tell
Joyfully came, joyfully came,
Came with the helpless and hopeless to dwell,
Sharing their sorrow and shame:
Seeking the lost, seeking the lost,
Saving, redeeming at measureless cost.

Jesus is seeking the wanderers yet;
Why do they roam? Why do they roam?
Love only waits to forgive and forget;
Home, weary wanderers, home!
Wonderful love, wonderful love,
Dwells in the heart of the Father above.

Come to my heart, O thou wonderful love!
Come and abide, come and abide,
Lifting my life till it rises above
Envy and falsehood and pride:
Seeking to be, seeking to be,
Lowly and humble, a learner of thee.