Choosing the Party
When I was in El Salvador, I saw a picture that has stayed with me. It was not a normal, framed, tangible picture - it was a thing that sometimes happens when my prayer life gets intense, a thing just short of a vision, where I am aware of the world around me and fully connected to reality, but I also see a picture appear in front of me in the midst of everything else.
Standing in the parking lot before church, I saw a circle of people with a flame-like, dove-like, something in the middle that was clearly the Holy Spirit, and everyone was so incredibly joyful and dancing and singing and *alive* and there was plenty of room left in the circle, visibly so - and the Spirit and the people said to me, “Join us!” - and I stood there and I said “I don’t know how.”
The Spirit returned to her dancing, and I returned to the rest of the world. But the picture did not leave me, nor did the depth of my response: I don’t know how. I’m not that free.
There’s no other way to do this. I’ll just have to tough it out. Trapped and terrified of failure, I spent much of my early high school years with this as my mantra. Though I liked learning and was capable in the classroom, school was a constant source of stress for me. I worked overtime in and out of the classroom attempting to make excellent grades and fill my resume with impressive extracurriculars. By refusing to rest or accept anything short of perfection in my work, I maintained strict control of my own future – which I measured in my ability to achieve admission to a top-notch college, like my older sister before me. I was not so much passionate about what I was studying, or even excited for attending university, as I was afraid of what might happen if I fell short.
When the strain of unrelenting stress began to manifest itself as depression in the middle of my sophomore year, I hardly noticed. My family, friends, and teachers sang a chorus of, “are you okay?” But I would not allow myself to imagine what it might mean if my pain and hopelessness were out of the ordinary and something were indeed wrong with me: the idea of taking action to help myself, like talking to someone or even dropping a class, felt unimaginable. If I admitted I was suffering, or made a change to lessen the strain, my fingers would slip and I would lose the precious sense of power and pride I had over my own self and destiny. I would squander everything I had worked for – or else, I would have to believe in a power greater than myself to catch me if I fell.
Believe it or not, the white-knuckle, just-tough-it-out strategy was unsuccessful in preventing my further mental deterioration. By the end of the year, I had been hospitalized for depression, and my situation was starting to force me to come to terms with a need to slow down. It took a couple more episodes for me to figure out just what slowing down was going to mean. But things shifted significantly once I became honest with my loved ones and willing to admit that I wasn’t okay, and that I couldn’t do it all on my own. My parents offered to help, my school gave me some time off, and everyone promised me that I could take my AP tests a couple weeks late and still be alright. There began to spread in me a surprising, intense and overwhelming sense of relief and surrender. I rested and took time, and – somehow – I didn’t lose everything the way I imagined I would.
This is the first time the prodigal son story has come around since I returned from that first trip to ES, and I wonder now: might the older son also have felt that stuck, that trapped, that befuddled? Was it all resentment about the stuff, or was there an underlying sense that the younger son had learned something on his journeys that, despite everything, was worth having? Did he look at the younger son’s freedom to dance and sing and be that joyful over just having come home, and envy the freedom and joy he saw? And did he really want the fatted calf for himself, or was he mostly looking for a way to say “I don’t know how to accept your invitation. I want to, but I don’t know how.”
What if the key here is not actually “you never gave me anything” but “I have worked like a slave for you all these years”?
What if the father’s response to that statement is simply “Why?”
Why have you worked yourself to the bone to fulfill the letter of every command, when all I wanted for you was to join the family and share in every joy and sorrow? What if the burden was never yours to bear alone in the first place?
These sorts of questions, I think, lead us to some of what Paul is trying to articulate in his letter to the Corinthians.
“We once knew Christ from a human point of view,” Paul tells us, but “we know him no longer that way. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
It’s easier to see this transformation in the younger son’s story: his relationship with his Father restored, his body robed, his belly filled with good things. But even the big brother must be touched by this transformation, this becoming new: his work and his family will never be the same.
He had, like all of us, been regarding his life and his relationships from a human point of view. He says himself that he has been as a slave to his father – endlessly working for his affection and recognition with little intimacy, operating from a perspective of scarcity in a world where one mistake could ruin his life and his relationship with his father.
I don’t believe the Father is asking the elder son to follow his little brother’s example and become lost just to be found. Nor do I believe he’s telling him his work isn’t good enough or that he isn’t loved and cherished. Instead, I think he, like Paul, is offering an opportunity to see and know things in a different way.
This is, after all, the new creation. From the father’s point of view – from God’s – these boys are not slaves, but sons. They are loved despite and irrelevant of their work. Love and intimacy, not labor and contract, form the foundation of their relationships. In this world, there is enough to go around. Trespasses are forgiven. The party isn’t just for the younger brother – it’s for everyone.
And that’s where the story ends: with the invitation, the challenge, the insistence on celebrating. We don’t know what the older son does after this. The story is probably wise to leave us with the open invitation, but it means it also leaves us where my picture left me: with no map to go forward.
Which might be the point as well.
When I made my first pilgrimage, I took as my own the old pilgrim’s motto: Traveler, there is no path: paths are made by walking. The wisdom of the pilgrimage is that the only way forward is to move forward, one step at a time. Anyone in a 12 step program will tell you the same thing: one day at a time, one step at a time, you don’t have to know how you’ll get all the way there, but it works if you work it, so keep coming back. You can make your path the same way others have made theirs: one stumbling step at a time.
I’ve spent some time thinking this week about where the journey has brought me the last two years since the invitation I received from that picture in San Salvador, and I think the biggest thing is that I’m learning to be a beginner again. I’m frankly not used to doing things badly, in a stumbling way, but there is no other way for me to learn to speak Spanish well than to be willing to try speaking it badly. There is no other way for me to begin a relationship than just to try, to be willing to say or do the wrong thing rather than saying and doing nothing at all.
There is no other way for me to move toward that circle of dancers than to risk looking like a fool.
In another part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he exhorts us to do just this: become fools for Christ. This is not an easy task. But it is also, in many ways, not harder than staying as we are, afraid of moving forward. When I first admitted to someone I trusted that I was suffering, the step felt enormous. But as soon as I had moved in some direction, some foolish, embarrassing, unsure direction, the next step felt less risky, as did the next, and the next.
For the older son, all the way out in the fields, I’m sure walking in to the party felt immensely difficult -- like giving up on everything he believed about how the world should work. But finding his way inside and celebrating would simply be a matter of making one choice after another. First, to want to go in. And then to look and step toward the music, the smell of meat, the sound of his brother’s cries of joy. As he approached, the fear would lessen, and grace would begin to bubble up inside him into something like joy.
Consider your own journey. Where might God be calling you to surrender and newness, and how might you begin to piece yourself awkwardly and gingerly toward that invitation? Remember: all that is God’s is yours. Come, be a fool for Christ. Come, join the party -- there’s plenty of room for you.