A Work in Progress
We call this the parable of the Prodigal Son but it should probably be called the Patient father. Jesus teaches us what God is like. God is like a poor woman that finds a coin that she values a great deal and is filled with joy over its return. God is like a shepherd that finds a lost lamb and is joyful over its return. God is very different from us because God is like an endlessly patient father who longs for us to come to our senses and return home, filled with joy that we are beginning to become healed.
We are not that way in our actual families. Imagine your own father for just a moment. Imagine you went to him and asked him for your inheritance during college? It would not have gone well.
But from the get go, God gives us humans near total freedom for our lives whether we deserve it or not, whether we can handle it productively or not. Some of us take our original freedom and become Albert Einstein, helping humanity enormously. Others of us waste half our lives, and barely get the point of our lives at all. Others of us still manage to inflict a tremendous amount of harm in all too brief time on earth like these jihadists that we have had to listen to for over a decade now. For good and bad, God keeps giving us near total freedom to live our lives as we choose.
God gives us that kind of unconditional acceptance. That is not what we get in most of our actual families. Mostly what we get is Mother’s with unconditional anxiety about what we are doing or not doing, unconditional worry, nearly unconditional fretting and a decent helping of guilt- which is a little different unconditional acceptance.
Jesus teaches us that God is not primarily embarrassed about us when we develop awkwardly. God is not primarily ashamed about us when fail ourselves and screw things up. God is not primarily afraid of us when we are filled with anger and hate. God is primarily love towards us, hoping for us healing and growth.
And we are invited by Jesus to become god-like in releasing that deeper, profounder, transcendent love in our lives to heal other people.
I love that line about the prodigal son in the far country that says, “And when he came to his senses”, “When he awoke to himself”, spark jumps the gap and he finally gets it.
I heard one of the guys in AA talking about his life. He was a Vet in Iraq, came home wounded. In the course of his treatment, he was taking pain medication, and kept taking pain medication after the physical pain was in remission, probably because it was a way of treating the soul wounds of war trauma. But who knows? He certainly couldn’t tell you. But over a period of time, he traded very expensive pain meds for heroin, turning himself into a complex mess, rewiring his brain in the process, which is very hard to undo and unwire as we know. He knows he is a total mess but he can’t/won’t do anything about it.
One day, he is moving some stuff, and he comes upon a picture of himself taken in Iraq. The picture was taken at the end of the day and he was out of his gear in a T shirt. He was in great shape and he had that expression on his face like he could conquer the world. Rugged handsome look. He looked at that picture and he went over and found a mirror and looked at what he was now. The picture, the mirror. The picture, the mirror.
And he thought to himself. “I’ve lost my honor. I have to find the part of me that is the guy in this picture again.” We all have that picture of ourselves somewhere in the closets of our lives, packed away some place. It is who we are when we are integrated, our higher selves. You need to find that picture too and put it up somewhere to remember.
And wouldn’t it be great if we also had a second picture that we could put on the other side of the mirror, a picture of who we are supposed to become in this chapter of our life? What would you look like if you lived excellence and love and fulfillment in this immediate context? Who is it that you need to become as you evolve towards wholeness?
God doesn’t look at us primarily as Mr. Bigshot, our vain ambitions. God doesn’t look at us for our sexy, our power, our elite status. God sees us as a work in progress. God wants us to become stronger, more substantive people.
Someone asked the Veteran how it was that he got off drugs and turned his life around again. He had an interesting answer. There was the re-hab and a long period where he was hollow at the core, where you can’t feel much of anything because the drugs have so overstimulated the pleasure generating parts of the brain that when you turn off the drugs, you feel nothing which is very frightening. And he reported pretty what you hear about these serious cases- that frightening feeling like you have no soul, no center.
And he had to build that back, and he really, really wanted to do it. It scared him, the feeling of nothing at his core. This is what was interesting. He was raised Catholic and I think some of the sound teaching he got as a child came back to him in his time of need. He said, he realized that he wasn’t going to get his soul back by focusing on himself. He just knew he had to help other people.
He started calling the other guys in his unit, see what they were up to. What he found out is that a large percentage of them were struggling. They came back from the war damaged, not that they exactly knew that they were damaged, or could tell you what that meant exactly. So he started reaching out listening to them, encouraging them, he’d travel quite some distance to be there for them. He said, ‘they had my back, now I have theirs’.
You know what happened? He started to recover his honor. You want to be honorable? Do honorable things. Reinhold Niebuhr once said that Jesus taught us that our own fulfillment is a by-product of fulfilling others. It is a good observation. You need to be healed? Start healing others. You need to become stronger? Strengthen those around you. That is the way God’s love works in our lives. Like so many of us, this veteran sort of stumbled into his actual calling for the next chapter of his life, becoming a wounded healer, helping other people to see themselves as a work in progress. We can change. We can become better. Healing, we can be healed.
I am amused watching these ads on TV for Viagra or Cialis to treat erectile dysfunction. It is not surprising because these ads are pitched to men exactly my age.
What is amusing is the depiction they have of guys my age relating to their spouses. They have these depictions of couples together playing with each other, couples frolicking in the park, couples taking photos of each other and making goofy faces, couples just sharing a moment hugging and watching the stars, couples being there for each other with these endearing, loving smiles.
I’m thinking to myself, ‘you know if men my age were that emotionally responsive to their mates, I don’t think we’d be needing medicine so much.
I suspect that if you could actually videotape our real lives in our real homes, a good part of the challenges of our romantic lives at mid-life is that we’ve stopped paying that kind of caring attention, we’re inconsistent at being emotionally resonant and responsive. I’m willing to bet that if we could actually survey the country, we’d find that the medical challenges are actually dwarfed by the spiritual ones. What we all really need is to improve our emotional/spiritual attunement with lots of small acts of caring.
John Gotman, the marriage therapist, calls these ‘sliding door’ moments, moments that you wish you could do over and get them right the second time. He gives an endearing example in his own life. He says, “I was getting ready for bed, putting a mystery novel I hadn’t had time to finish by my bedside. When I went into the bathroom, I saw my wife’s face reflected in the bathroom mirror. She was brushing her hair and looked sad. She hadn’t seen me yet. In one version of the sliding-door moment, I could have slowly backed out of the bathroom, gotten into bed, and picked up my book. In that universe, later my wife would have joined me and I might have turned to her to initiate romance. She, still feeling sad, probably would have pulled away from me because she wasn’t in a romantic mood… [But lets rewind and do that sliding door moment over again]… poised at the bathroom entrance. This time, however, I actually did enter the bathroom. I took the brush from my wife’s hand and began brushing her hair. That was a different universe. She closed her eyes and leaned back into me and I said, ‘what’s wrong baby?’ We talked about her sadness, which was about her 92 year old mother’s deteriorating mental alertness with Alzheimer’s disease. Later we both got into bed and I did initiate romance” and got a much more engaging response.
I suspect that our problem is actually that we need to get much better at sharing spiritual and emotional intimacy. Psychologists call this being attuned to each other. If we are good at spiritual and emotional intimacy, we are going to have better physical relationships as well. But there is no medical shortcut that takes the place of caring, compassion, and attunement. We need to be freed to care for our loved ones more like God cares for us.
Jesus teaches us that God gets us. God knows us, virtues and vices, warts and all. God accepts us, even as God wants us to grow and become. Jesus taught us that we should accept ourselves, quite in spite of ourselves, as a work in progress. God wants to free each and every one of us to become wounded healers, developing attunement to develop support for those around us, the divine love that we can and do show each other when we let our honorable side come to the fore. For just a moment, we can act like God and show a divine and healing compassion for those we love.
I hope that you can become loving for the people around you, not asking the minimum of what I can do, but ask yourself the divine question- what is it that they really need. I hope you can become responsive, caring to those people around you that are your project.
And may you grow to trust others, manifesting lived faith in the small moments that you turn towards those you love. And may you, one small act at a time, grow into a character of substance. Amen.