In my late thirties I experienced an adult call to faith in Jesus. My adult conversion made me a member of what I’ve heard called “the community of the silly grin.”
It was a feel good experience, but you know feelings – they are ephemeral. They always pass. Faith is what sustains you after the initial rush has passed.
As I think wistfully of those first giddy days, the parable of the prodigal son comes to mind. It appears in the gospel of Luke, chapter 15, verses 11 to 32. A brief paraphrase:
A wealthy farmer had two sons. The younger one came to him one day and said, “I want my inheritance now.” The farmer cashed out half of everything he owned and gave it to the boy.
The kid took the money, moved to the city, blew every penny, and ended up homeless.
He got a job tending swine. He remembered that his father’s farmhands (slaves) lived in well-fed comfort and security, and he decided to go home, and ask his father to let him work as a hand on the farm.
When he was almost home, his father saw him coming, and ran to meet him with joy. The son protested that he was not worthy to be his son, but the father commanded his slaves to put the best robe on the boy, and a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet, and to kill the fatted calf so they could have a feast and celebrate, because “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
See, that’s how you can feel when you have a conversion experience. You feel like you are the prodigal son, welcomed with joy and celebration. You see no reason why you should be greeted so warmly and treated so well after the life you’ve lived. There is joy, and relief. You’ve come home to where you belong. It’s pretty cool.
But whoa – the prodigal son had an older brother, remember?
When the older son heard what was going on, he was angry. He went to his father and said, “Hey, I’ve been working for you all these years, I’ve never disobeyed you, and you’ve never given me so much as a goat so I could party with my friends. My brother spends half your property on whores, and you kill the fatted calf for him. What’s the deal?”
The father tells the older son, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:31-32, New Oxford Annotated Bible)
This parable applies to mothers and daughters, by the way. The story was written down in second century Palestine. They weren’t big on inclusive language.
Over time I have become more like the older brother. I try to do the best I can. But after years of keeping my hand to the plow, I sometimes wish someone would grill up a little fatted calf for me.
Note: These days we are eating vegetarian at Casa Tuel, and the metaphor breaks down. If we had a fatted calf, we would name it Sweetie Patootie or something like that, and probably let it come in the house.
So sometimes faith can be tested. Sometimes prayers feel a lot like taking the recycling to the transfer station. After I let go of them, what happens to them? Where do they go? Do they do any good?
And look – so far no prayers, no creeds, no laws, no cults, no one and nothing have been able to stop war, or the killing, torture, and abuse of people and all living creatures. It is the saddest thing in our sad world, the way we treat each other and creation. Why, when so many people, atheists and agnostics as well as people of faith, work and pray and long for all that to stop, does it persist?
I have no answer to that question.
I read an interview with Sherman Alexie a few weeks ago in which he said, “I’m going to approach everything I do with as much love as possible. I fail impossibly like most of us, but I still try.”
I like to believe that most of us live by some version of that principle, whether we have faith or not.
So, all you rounders and scoundrels, all you angels and do-gooders, all you religious and non-religious, all you people who labor each day in pain but keep putting one foot in front of the other: I pray we may give each other quiet companionship and shower one another with blessings, love, peace, and grace today. Everyone needs those things, people of faith or people of no faith.
Why? Because we all have to get up in the morning and keep fighting evil. It’s good to know we don’t have to do it alone.
Can I get an amen?