With the focus on Love this week, I was drawn to my favorite Bible story … the one about the Prodigal Son … who left home and went out into the world … searching for something … just something ELSE. I don't suppose he knew exactly what he was searching for … he thought maybe excitement … adventure … freedom? Whatever it was that was missing … he hoped to find out THERE … in the big wide world.
Surely there is a story beneath the story. What was driving the Prodigal Son … what drives us … to constantly seek more stuff or more excitement? Why DOES the grass on the other side of the fence so often seem greener? What is this ache in the heart … this hole in the gut we hope to fill?
The intensity of our longing keeps us on the run … from one place to another … one person to another … one toy to the next. OMG … what version of I-Phone are we on now? How big a fish is big enough? The seductions of the world call to us and we follow because we really need some sort of relief. And they work for a little while – but as soon as the “newness” wears off, we are left with that same old gnawing in the gut. So what can we do but head out on another quest to find an even greater distraction. We could spend our whole lives like this. Many have.
There is a wonderful Old Testament story about the prophet Elijah who went up on the mountaintop to find God. First a great powerful hurricane blew through, but God was not in the hurricane. Then a mighty earthquake shook the whole mountain, but God was not in the earthquake. Then, out of nowhere came a great fire, but God was not in the fire. Finally, a sweet soft wind came and gently touched Elijah's face. Immediately, he was overcome and fell to the ground … for in the quiet breeze, he sensed the presence of God.
It's hard to feel a gentle breeze in the midst of drama, intensity and stress – ever try to meditate on a roller coaster? But we love roller coasters … and action movies … anything that evokes a strong emotional reaction because strong emotional reactions demand our full attention. They make a perfect distraction … for a while. Unfortunately, they also help us hide us from ourselves … keep us from hearing the quiet voice of our own hearts … that longs to feel loved and appreciated and valued. If only we could find someone to give us these things.
The material world is a siren song that says, "come here, do this, own that … and you will know you are worth something. For a while, we believe it, but when the running and doing and owning, let us down YET AGAIN … and we finally know that they always will … we come face to face with a crisis.
Last week, I referred to the story of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. Remember? And a light opened up in the sky and a voice spoke and said, Behold! This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. Keep in mind … Jesus had not yet begun his ministry … he had not performed any miracles or saved any souls. Even so, on the day of his Baptism, God told him, in no uncertain terms, that he was deeply loved and appreciated and valued.
The voice of the ego says: "love must be earned". And yet, try as we might, there's never seems to be enough achievement to earn it. The great fear of not being enough … of not being loveable … drives us on and on. UNTIL, at last, we realize that nothing outside of us … not even therapy or church … and certainly no other person … will ever be able to make us feel our own worth.
Like the Biblical pearl of great price that was buried deep in the earth, love lives inside us … waiting to be discovered. It is the presence of God dwelling like a small candle flame in the core of our being. Nothing we acquire in this world will ever supply what we so desperately need … to hear the still, small voice within that tells us that we are not only good enough … we are absolutely precious … AND we are completely, utterly, totally, unconditionally loved.
God within … the voice of Self-Love … speaks like the soft breeze … touches our hearts gently. We won’t be able to hear and feel it until we get still. At some point, we've got to give up our wanderings and come home … and stay there. Only then will be find out what the Prodigal Son did … that everything of value was always there.
But then the story delivers a new twist. The elder brother, remember him? The elder brother did stay home. He did all the right things … always obeyed his father … was always the "responsible" one. And yet, he does not feel worthy either. You see, his path too was driven, not by love, but by the same hole in the gut that drove his younger brother out into the far country. He thought he could get love by being good enough. And he ended up pretty much like his brother … disappointed and disillusioned. But because he had been such a GOOD GUY, you can add self-righteousness, bitterness and jealousy to his inner turmoil.
When the elder son complained to his father about how unfair it was that there should be such rejoicing at his “useless” brother's return, his father said to him, "But son, you know I've always loved you … you've always been right beside me and everything I have is yours". Even these words could not soothe the elder brother … because he was so lost inside his wounded ego. For him, the quest for his father's approval was no less a seduction than his brother's quest for material things. Being the "good" one had not satisfied his hungry and aching heart any more than his brother's wandering in the world had. He too desperately needed to come home, though it appears as though he has never left.
The Father holds the key. He had allowed his younger son to have his money and leave home without protest, even though it must have hurt him deeply. He had welcomed his boy home without even asking where he had been or what had become of his fortune. He doesn't ask because he doesn't care. All he cares about is that his son is home. How many of us could be that way with a loved one who has messed up … even left us. This is the treasure of our story … that love is only love when it has not been earned, but freely given … no strings attached … when it is constant and true no matter what.
The Father is the one with a peaceful heart – you can definitely see that in Rembrandt's painting. This is not the face of a long-suffering martyr … nor the face of one who is vindicated by his wandering son's abject return. This face is like the gentle breeze that touched Elijah.
We leave home every time we lose touch with the Father inside us … the steadfast voice of our own heart that calls us beloved – no matter how often we lose our way or doubt our worth. If only we would sit still long enough and often enough to allow the Presence of Love to heal every dark, painful thought and memory.
Bob Sima has a great song called “Hurt people, hurt people; Healed people, heal people. Someday, someone will surely disapprove, criticize, even betray us. They will do this because the hole in their gut and the ache in their heart has become unbearable. We cannot be harmed by these things when compassion fills our hearts. Peace comes with BEING the love we have been seeking from other people.
BEING love is security. It is the deep inner knowing that, even when scary, painful things are happening, we are held in the arms of God because we are held in our own arms. This God-love is so different from the worlds. It is outside the whole paradigm of worthiness. It is unlimited – unaffected by our behavior.
God love is universal … Hitler is no more outside the love of God than, say, Mother Theresa. How do we wrap our minds around this? We are so steeped in the belief that love is conditional … so steeped in the idea that God loves and rewards good people and judges and punishes bad people.
The voices that taught us so early on that we must prove we are worthy of love were well-meaning … they were parents and teachers and priests and rabbis and friends and employers. Powerful, influential forces. They may no longer be near us, but their voices remain. As long as we stay close and connected to the Presence of Love within, these voices are quite harmless. But let us become weakened by overwork, stress, loneliness or neglect of our spiritual life and we can easily be pulled into the "far country" … hurt, confused, disappointed, disillusioned … feeling that we must have done something to deserve our misfortune.
When this happens, our spiritual power is temporarily diminished. The good news is that as we grow spiritually, we remember sooner who we are. I love the word, "re-member" – as in, put the parts back together – re-member. Like the Prodigal Son when he is in the pig sty in total despair, so hungry he is thinking of eating pig slop and then suddenly comes to himself – re-members the abundance of his father's table and makes the decision to return home.
But the journey home is not without its obstacles either. Shame and guilt stand between him and his father. In the story he says to himself – "I know I am not worthy to be called "son" but perhaps my father will take me on as a hired servant."
Guilt and shame keep us in the "far country" … they are as far from love as resentment and hate. The Father within wants only one thing … for us to re-member and come home … not matter how many times we wander. The Father does not judge. He feels only compassion for our painful circumstances. Look at the painting … God love is the Father's hands on the son's shoulders … the only wagging finger is under the robe of the righteous Elder Brother.
The other day, I came to myself about 2 hours after I was supposed to have met a dear friend for lunch. In my busy-ness and stress, I had completely forgotten it. When I opened her text asking if I was okay … immediately shame and guilt descended. I pictured her sitting at the table alone, feeling abandoned. She would think I did not value her friendship. I apologized profusely. She wrote back … no apology needed. I had a wonderful lunch and left a $20 tip in your honor. The still, small voice of God-love talks like this – no drama, no blame. My friend did not feel diminished by my mistake. She did not take it personally. Guilt had caused me to suffer; God love kept my friend secure and happy.
Once final time, we return to the painting … see how light illuminates the Father's love for his son. Most people think the theme of the Prodigal Son story is forgiveness. Yet, the Father did not need to forgive his son because he had never judged him. Rather, there was only forgiveness of the past. The past is entirely gone. Looking at this masterpiece, our attention is riveted by the power of this one single moment -- when love is all there is -- so powerful, it lights up the room. Love this powerful completely obliterates the past and the future. What wrongdoing? … There has been no wrongdoing. What search? … There is nothing to search for.
Spiritual homecomings are like this. Anytime, anywhere, we can just go to that quiet place within – where there are no loud, seductive judgmental voices – and wait, as Elijah did, for the earthquakes and hurricanes to pass by – wait until we can feel the soft breeze caress our soul.