Monday, September 28, 2009

A Prodigal Daughter

Six years ago this month, a young girl committed suicide in my hometown. I never met her, but I always felt as if I should have, because she was friends with some of the students I worked with. This last year I wrote a sermon for her and for our youth group. I always wished I'd been able to find the words in 2003, but maybe it just takes time. A phone call today reminded me of Maggie and how much I wish I could have been there for her.

Here's a couple of links for help--either for yourself or for a friend:

     *Suicide Prevention Hopeline: 1-800-442-4673
           Lots of resources on this website.

     *PostSecret Community: so you know you're not alone with secrets.

     *To Write Love on Her Arms:
          An awesome website dedicated to providing hope.

If nothing else, e-mail me.

Here's some lyrics from Kimya Dawson's "Loose Lips"

So if you wanna burn yourself remember that i love you.
and if you wanna cut yourself remember that i love you.
and if you wanna kill yourself remember that i love you.
Call me up before you're dead, we can make some plans instead,
send me an IM i'll be your friend.
Here's that sermon. Love to you all...

Luke 15:11-32

Psalm 139:1-12

This has to be one of the most overused parables in the Scriptures. I hesitate to bring it to you today, because it seems like after three years of seminary I should have developed more “sophisticated taste.” But this is the story that started me on this journey, and it seems fitting to pause and give thanks by returning to my theological roots. Perhaps you have your own connection to this parable—so many of us do.



A couple of months ago I met with a pastor who was on campus looking for a youth pastor. I was his last meeting for the day—he had a stack of resumes and PIF’s that explained the tired and irritated look on his face. We got through the small talk just fine and then he asked me, “So, after three years of seminary, what’s your theology of youth ministry?” I should have anticipated such a question, but I choked and sputtered out something about the Prodigal Son and Psalm 139. He nodded politely and then asked, “Which son do you identify with more: the Elder Brother or the Prodigal?” My smile was now frozen in place, for this is a trick question—a preference for one or the other betrays theological leanings. I gave a nice answer, I think, about my empathy for the Prodigal Son and about how as I get a little older, I understand the Elder Brother better. He looked at me with a flat expression and said, “I think the Elder Brother gets short shrift. Everybody loves the Prodigal.”

It’s true, isn’t it? We read this parable as one of a set of three stories: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son. In the Lost Sheep the shepherd leaves the 99 obedient sheep to graze placidly in the pasture and searches diligently for the one lost sheep. One commentator notes that there is a parallel story in the Gospel of Thomas; there the shepherd’s actions are justified by explaining that the lost sheep was the largest and the favorite sheep of the flock. This makes more sense, but Luke does not give us such mercy in our canonical text; in Luke the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son are of equal value to the faithful who remain—there is no justification for the preference given to the lost. The next story tells of a woman who loses one coin out of ten and will not rest until that tenth coin is found. Again and again the stories read that: “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” This is great news for those of us who consider ourselves lost. This is bitter news for those of us who consider ourselves faithful. I could see in that pastor’s eyes the stories of people around him who had wandered in and out of the church, and in and out of righteous living, and I could see the toll it had taken on him to remain faithful to a God who kept welcoming back the inconsistent souls.

Traditionally, this parable has been read as an allegory—a story of personal salvation. Jesus was standing up for the sinners and prostitutes he spent so much time with; he came to save the lost, the fallen away sinners. In this way of reading the story, the Father is equated with God, the Prodigal with sinners, and the Elder Brother with those who have faith and behave righteously. This is the way we read this parable so often in our churches—we offer it as hope to those who struggle with temptation, addiction, etc. And we offer it as a word of caution to those who believe they are ever faithful. It is a story that brings many back to the church on their knees in grateful repentance, and it is a story which offers affirmation to the righteous who join with the Father in welcoming the Prodigal.

In California I worked with a student led retreat program called Love of God, or L.O.G. for short. Twice a year we took 50-80 students up the mountain to a beautiful camp where we sang and prayed and ate and talked and worshiped and laughed from Friday night until Sunday night. Our abiding theme for every retreat over the course of 20 years has been the Prodigal Son story. As a community we looked on this story a little bit differently, understanding the Elder Brother to be as lost as the Prodigal. We acknowledged that most of the time we were one or the other of the sons, but that we longed to be the Father to one another, both as individuals and as a community. We understood our task at L.O.G. to try to be the Father—the gracious, loving welcoming Father. When one of our students or adults had been away for a while and returned, we ran down the road to meet them with joy. When there was conflict in the group we worked hard to reconcile. It wasn’t perfect, but for 6 days out of every year we intentionally created a space where Prodigals and Elders were welcome. The students reveled in this scripture passage—they made skits: a new one for every retreat. We had the Prodigal Model and the Prodigal Cow. They brought costumes and made up accents. The absurdity of the skits mirrored the absurdity of the Father’s welcome. It was an honor to witness.

On Saturday night the students performed what they called “The Turn Around Skit” where we watched a fellow student take on the burdens of life—eating disorders, depression, broken love, and even suicide. The “bad friends” desert her one by one and she cries out for help. The “good friends” from L.O.G. run to circle around her and offer love and prayer and support, but it isn’t enough. Finally Jesus makes his appearance on stage and wrestles Death to the ground. The music ends, the friends are reunited, and Jesus stretches out his hands in love over the community. This is a good vision of what it might be like in the Father’s house, isn’t it?

This worked for us pretty well—we had the freedom to move between the three characters—understanding that it was by the grace of God that every now and then we were able to love one another the way the Father loved both sons. It isn’t that we were trying to take God’s place, exactly, we were trying to participate in God’s work. But we made a mistake. We forgot that God cannot be limited by a parable or by a particular role that we assign. At some point the allegory breaks down and we have to look anew at the Scripture to find fresh meaning.

I think we were sort of like the Prodigal Son, actually. We had started off down a path and wandered pretty far from home without realizing it. We had come to depend on a certain way of understanding the scripture—a time honored way. But we had also come to depend on ourselves to save one another. And then one day a very sad thing happened. We went up the mountain as usual, and we came home Sunday night. Monday morning the students went to school and discovered that one of their classmates, Maggie, had killed herself early in the morning. Maggie never came to one of our retreats, but she was good friends with many of our students and it seemed like she should have been there with us. Suddenly we were confronted with the fact that all of our efforts toward becoming the wise and gracious father had not saved this girl from whatever despair overtook her. And it seemed like the parable had failed us—God had failed us—because we had done everything right. And so my question today is, what do we do with this piece of Scripture when the Prodigal does not return home?

Sometimes we focus on what the prodigal was doing off in that far off land—we try to understand what is meant by “dissolute living”—is it sinful or careless or just wasteful living? But I’m more interested in the first part of the story—the point at which the son left his father and brother. It was a terrible and sorrowful thing to do, to ask for his inheritance and leave home. Family and land were everything, and the son was asking his father for his blessing to leave too early. Usually a son would stay with the family until the father’s death, and then would receive his rightful share of the land. Usually even then the son would stay and be part of the community, raising his own family there in the village. But this time he left too early, taking a piece of the father with him. And later we hear the father say, “This son of mine was dead.” Surely this is part of what our group felt that day? It was too early, too soon, we were not ready for Maggie to leave us, and she went anyway. We weren’t ready for her to take pieces of our heart with her, but we couldn’t stop her. It all happened so fast, so unexpectedly, that we had no time to prepare. And so like the father, we grieved. This prodigal friend had taken part of our hearts and left us behind, and we grieved her death. There are people in every church and every family who do this. They leave, and they take part of us with them, and they do not return.

It’s like we’re stopped short of finishing those skits—like the Prodigal Son story is stopped in its tracks and cannot be completed. And somehow, its like our own story can’t be completed either—how do we go on from here? It seems too glib to me to simply say that Maggie went home to the Father—the Heavenly Father. She was supposed to come home to us. Like the father in the story, we left the lamp burning at night, we kept watch over the road out our windows, we took care of one another so we could run out to the road and help each other home. But we didn’t see Maggie on the road, or maybe she couldn’t find the road, or maybe she hadn’t come to herself yet and wasn’t even looking for the road home. Somebody said “Home is where you go when your skin dries out or when you are weary of wallowing in pigs.” For reasons we cannot understand, Maggie didn’t come home to us—and we couldn’t even yell at her about that. There are people in every church and in every family who do this.

So maybe we have to take a little step back and look at this story again. How many times have you read or heard this story? And each time we move through the three characters of the story—are you the Father, the Prodigal, the Elder Brother? We strive always to be the Father; we confess that we are often the Prodigal son or the angry Elder Brother. We are very familiar with this story—so familiar, in fact that we forget that there is a fourth character in that story: God. It is Jesus telling us the story, after all. Jesus doesn’t claim to be the father, Jesus tells us about the father. When the son comes home, he confesses that he has sinned before the father and before God—we understand that God is like the father, but God is beyond the father as well. This must be true, because the father in this story is limited; he is limited in that he cannot follow after his son to the foreign land. And we are limited too, because we cannot follow where Maggie and others go.

And this is where we’ll have to trust God—to trust Jesus who told us this story in the first place. We’ll have to trust Jesus, who also went where we can’t follow. Maggie left us too early and took pieces of us with her, but she did not go alone. For there is no place for us to go that God isn’t there also. Psalm 139 tells us so. Piece by piece, bone by bone we were put together. And piece by piece, and bone by bone Maggie was put together too. In an earlier part of that same Psalm we find our assurance that none of us go down that Prodigal road alone:
O Lord you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways...
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take to the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
There is no place on heaven or earth where we can walk away from the Spirit of God, and so there is no place that Maggie went where she could be abandoned by the Spirit of God. Jesus, who died and returned to life—who returned to conquer even death--that Jesus is the one who told us this story, so let us cling to it, even as we mourn and grieve the loss of those Prodigals who never return home to us. Let us be the father to one another, and when we come to the limit of our ability, when we have given all we have and discover that it didn’t work, let us trust that the Spirit of God remains with our prodigal friends, even as we long for their return. God will never give up on Maggie—she is not beyond God’s reach. For God searches us out like the shepherd with the lost sheep. For God is like the woman who will not rest until she finds the last coin.

Maggie is precious in God’s eyes—God made her particularly and carefully in her mother’s womb. Those of us in ministry—pastors, elders, deacons, and lay people, we have our Prodigals—those who move beyond our reach. Sometimes they return, but sometimes they do not. They too are precious in God’s eyes, made particularly and carefully in their mothers’ wombs. And each of us is sometimes Prodigal, moving beyond the reach of those who love us. And we also are precious in God’s eyes, made particularly and carefully in our mothers’ wombs.

We did not understand where Maggie went or why she had to go, and as diligently as we watched the road, it was other people we had to run to meet instead of Maggie. As I think about my answer to the pastor’s question last month, I think I wouldn’t change it one bit. Ministry is exactly a cross between the parable of the Prodigal Son and Psalm 139. For we know that there is no place we can go where God’s Spirit does not also go. God will keep on after all of us down roads and into places others cannot reach. Knowing that, we are called to rejoice in our life together as church, to gather as a community around our Lord, Jesus Christ, and trust that God will take it from there. For the Creator God, who made all of us, follows us into the dark places of our lives to make them light. The journey home looks different for each of us, but God will never fail us, even when we operate outside the confines of a parable.

6 comments:

  1. Pastor Katie, do you know about http://www.mysecret.tv ? It was launched by Craig Groeschel of www.lifechurch.tv (one of my favs).

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  2. This is beautiful Katie. Not all prodigals return, and it can be quite painful to hear that story for a lot of people. This adds a present day dimension to the hearers of this parable that is often overlooked. Sermons about suicide are tough, but this is good. I'm glad you found your words. Sometimes it takes six years.

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  3. Thanks, Kenny. I hope people know they're not alone. And that probably some of those secrets came from pastor types too. None of us get by without the hard times, that's for sure.

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  4. Ann Renee--glad to count you as friend :-)

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  5. Thanks for bringing this up on the anniversary to remember those we have lost too soon. Wise and gracious words.

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  6. Thanks for bringing this forward to honor @gideony and Maggie. Wise and gracious words. You are a blessing.

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