AfterWords | To Have and to Hold (March 6, 2022)
AfterWords is a series of community-contributed reflections intended to further the conversations that begin during Parish sermons.
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A 3-Minute Read
Dear God, calamity again!
It was so peaceful, so serene…
~ Taras Schevchenko, Ukrainian poet, 1814–1861
“The arithmetic is impossible.”
The journalist on NPR spoke hopelessly—bleakly—of outcomes in Ukraine. There’s no off-ramp, she warned. Things will not end well.
She may be right.
Still, is the arithmetic impossible? Isn’t God and his new-fangled math at work in every corner of this broken old world, this far country?
I switch off the smooth voice on the radio and pray she’s miscalculated.
Sunday’s message was based on the parable of the prodigal son. Jesus describes a son whose budgeting skills, not to mention sense of familial duty, are sorely lacking. He winds up flat broke—the arithmetic seems impossible. He figures the solution is transactional—he’d head home and earn his keep as a hired hand. But his father refuses the terms of this deal. He sprints toward his rebel-child, throws his arms around him, hosts a welcome-home party. He grants him sonship, not servanthood.
But the parable doesn’t end there. If it did, it would be a nice, feel-good story of grace. Yet there’s the matter of the older brother. This is a tale of two lost boys. Both want the things of their father rather than the father himself. The older brother’s approach differs; he outwardly does good to get the goods. And the goods he gets are never enough.
Notably, the older brother does not get an upbeat, tidy ending. He does not “come to himself,” as does his wayward sibling. Jesus leaves us with a cliffhanger. Does big brother soften, shedding his self-righteousness? He’s told by his father, “All that I have is yours.” Does he get this through his head?
This part of the parable points a finger at the ones who run to the far country not by flouting the rules but by keeping them.
In other words, us. In other words, me.
We default to deal-making: If we repent of the bad we do, we’re safe. But we often fail to repent of the reasons we do good.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve got some serious older brother in me.
I know this because… Oh, let me count the ways! I know this when I am offended. Indignant. Certain my way is correct. I say things like, “Who does that?” and “I would never!” and “If it were me…” Sometimes I’m swept into “the delicious throes of schadenfreude” (Anne Lamott). And I am shocked—shocked!—when things don’t go as I’d hoped. Haven’t I worked hard? Put in the time? Gone by the book?
How could the Father withhold?
I hold him to promises he never made. I forget: He made grander promises. He tells me, “All that I have is yours.”
During Lent, we try to step back from more, more, more.
Jordan said on Sunday, “If you don’t define what enough is, you never have enough.”
(Someone behind me muttered, “Amen.”)
It’s true. We don’t define enough—why put a cap on accumulation? Over and over, we redefine enough—enough achievement, enough stuff, enough space in our schedules. We’re forever coming up short of our hearts’ ever-changing desires; we’re forever running short on time.
We operate in scarcity mode so often, we don’t realize we’re doing it. In scarcity mode, I get a little smaller, a little shriveled inside.
I felt small and shrivel-y two weeks ago as I dashed into church. (Is it just me, or is anyone else at their edgiest in the rush to get out the door on Sunday mornings?) Even during Prayers of the People, I stayed prickly. We were asked to “breathe,” then “lock arms” with someone next to us. I did not want to breathe. I did not want to lock arms.
There I stood, frozen. And then I saw the face of a boy—age eight, it turns out—sitting in front of me, looking up at me with big eyes. He offered me his hand.
Oh, my heart.
I held tight to that small hand. I was now participating. The older brother in me evaporated; I could hear the music, go into the dance party.
I was keenly aware of God’s unyielding kindness. And that maybe he was laughing at me a little.
Our father calls us into the feast, out of the far country of scarcity and into his house of abundance.
His spending is boundless, lavish, prodigal.
As we watch—from a safe distance—the horrors and heartache in Ukraine, we pose questions we cannot answer. You know the ones: Why? How can this be? Where now is this prodigal God?
I have no tidy ending, no easy answers. But in this week’s post, I couldn’t not mention our brothers and sisters caught in the crosshairs of war. They’ve seized our thoughts and prayers.
I cannot explain. But I am landing on this line from the liturgy below:
Your heart is always inclined toward those who suffer.
This I believe. To this I hold fast.
Engage our imaginations and move our hearts to compassion, O Lord,
that we would interact with these casualties, not as news stories or statistics,
but as our own sisters and brothers, flesh and blood, divine image-bearers,
irreplaceable individuals whose losses will leave gaping holes in homes, friendships, workplaces, churches, schools, organizations, and neighborhoods.
Be merciful to those now wounded.
Be present with those now bereaved.
We do not run from our brokenness, O God.
We move ever toward those in need.
Your heart is always inclined toward those who suffer.
Now let your mercies be active through the hands, the words,
and the compassionate care of those who willingly enter this
sadness to console and serve.
~ from Every Moment Holy by Douglas McKelvey