The Role of a Lifetime
Growing up my grandfather, Papa Charlie, would come over for dinner every Wednesday night. After a Southern feast of fried chicken, rice and gravy, butter beans, homemade biscuits and sweet tea, my five sisters and I would put on a lively performance for him. As I was the oldest, and many of my sisters were either too young or too shy, I happily played multiple roles in our homespun plays.
This summer I re-read the parable of the Prodigal and realized to my dismay that in my own life I have played the role of the prodigal son, the disillusioned eldest brother and on my best days, the role of the extraordinary father.
You probably remember the story of the youngest son who was restless, unsatisfied with his life, longing for where the grass is greener. He was convinced he could find something more for himself apart from God. Flying the coup, inheritance in hand, he proceeded to live the “high life” in distant lands. He spent years trying to fill the void with the vapid. Inevitably, he came up short in every way. Not a dime to his name, he found himself literally in a pig sty. In a dark night of the soul, this youngest son realized how lost he was and humbly turned homeward.
My friend Thom Schuyler believes the day the prodigal left, the Father set up a watch tower on the porch waiting for his son’s return. On the day the Father saw his son’s silhouette on the horizon he literally ran, arms outstretched to greet him. The Father did not demand to be paid back, turn the cold shoulder or use the opportunity to show his might. How could he? That is simply not in the definition of love. Life is too precious. The prodigal, who was once lost to himself and to God, had found his way home again. A celebration of all celebrations was in order.
Coming up from working the fields, the oldest brother smells the roasting calf and hears the jubilant music. A dyke breaks inside him. How could it be after all these years of working hard, face to the mat, hoeing every row, trying his best to live right, true and faithful, that he was looked over. Years of pent up resentment, jealousy and spiritual disillusionment flooded his heart. Ironically, he was as lost in faith as his wily younger brother. The Prodigal usually gets more attention because his actions were more news-worthy: brothels and pigsties. However, I believe the eldest brother is a role we are all too familiar with, but it often goes undetected because the exile takes place within the secret lands of the heart.
If I am honest, I am well-studied on the role of the Prodigal. You don’t have to necessarily squander your soul to lascivious living to end up in a spiritual pig sty. You only have to turn your back on God and think only of yourself. I know that feeling of looking everywhere but God to fill me. When I slip into the shoes of the prodigal, I choose my will over God’s. Whether I am gone for a day, a week or months, I always end up in a spiritual pigsty. I know it because I have no inner peace and it frightens me to my core. Humbled, I try my best to return home. My prayer: “Your will, not mine, Father.”
I confess I have walked more than I’d like to admit in the shoes of the elder son too. On the outside, I appear comfortable in my faith, but inside, my heart sometimes struggles in the face of life’s uncertainties and cruelties. It’s in these moments of inner fragility where doubt, insecurity, envy, and fear land me in a dark muck. What an icky place to be, a great distance between one’s soul and God. In many ways, it’s easier for the prodigal because he hits rock bottom in a definitive, tangible way whereas the older brother in us can suffer in silence for sometimes a lifetime.
Like both sons, we must find our way back home. How? Maybe time spent on our knees, an illumined quote or perfect scripture, a quiet walk in nature or just silence where we remember again who we truly are and who God is. More than anything, what is required of us is humility. Let God take care of the rest.
The homecoming is a return of authority to our souls. All we could ever need, dream, experience or hope can only be found under Love’s roof.
The role of a lifetime is that of the Father. The Father gets the best line in the play: “You have always been with me, and all that is mine has and will always be yours.” That is ultimate love.
If you are looking for the best role to play, remember the Father. He gets to wear all the best costumes: healer, lover, life-giver. Maybe even a pair of angel wings at the end.
Run towards life, every relationship, every experience, every opportunity heart-first, mercy in one hand, hope in the other!
Live in Hope,