Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tuesdays in the Chapel

We’re looking at finding hope in hard times. In this parable (The Prodigal Son) that Jesus told, certainly this younger son has fallen upon hard times. But it is the father, too, who has fallen upon hard times. What mother or father does not know the pain of witnessing a son or daughter make poor choices? Those poor choices sometimes throw into question the quality of the parents, resulting in shame or dishonor. What about a spouse who is unfaithful or who has given up hope? Or a friend who now doubts or rejects you? What do you do when those who are dear to you make choices which reflect poorly on your reputation?

Much has been made of the notion that because the father saw the son from a long way off, that the father has been anticipating or hoping for his son’s return. I think this may be true. But when you consider the hard times that the father might have been going through, any notion of joyful anticipation and hope is counter-intuitive. In a culture of honor, the son has not only wasted an inheritance, he has brought shame to his father and his household. Surely, a good father wants to restore a wayward son, but a proud father would certainly have difficult feelings about such a son.

Why do people look in the direction of another from a distance? We can well imagine the son standing in a tavern doorway at night, looking toward his father’s estate half-way through his indulgent excess saying, “Take that, old man.” What drove the son to such prodigal excess? That is the definition of a prodigal, by the way: to be excessive. The parable is known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But it may as well too be known as the Parable of the Prodigal Father. The Father is himself excessive. And his excessiveness may be behind how the boy ended up in his own excess.

If you really had a father who was genuinely graceful and giving in every way, embodying both love and truth, justice and mercy, such excessive goodness would be too much to behold. Such incredible love should drive you insane. Such love does not fit our realities. We need a whole lifetime to grasp the unconditional love of God. How can anyone be so genuinely good? As a child, you simply receive such goodness. But as you mature, your response is that you can’t possibly deserve such goodness, so you work hard to justify the goodness that you are surrounded by. You’re not working to earn it ~ you’re working to feel good about having it. You begin to feel justified in being so blessed because after all, you’re good too, by golly. That’s the state of the older brother in the parable, though I regret that we don’t have time to stop and try to understand him today.

But then that feeling gets old. Working to justify the goodness that you are surrounded by is unsatisfying because you weren’t designed to satisfy yourself. You chafe and you twist and you wriggle but you can’t shake the feeling that you now feel even more distant from the source of goodness in your life. When you can’t take the pressure you put on yourself to assure yourself of your worthiness in stoic excess, you turn and begin to assure yourself of your worthiness in nihilistic excess. When that too proves unsatisfying you have nothing left except one thing: to go back to work. To be productive. To serve and to help others. Is that wrong? No. But it’s fruitless and unsatisfying if it’s meant to give your life meaning because nothing you can do will ever give your life meaning. Only God Himself gives you and your life meaning.

Let’s cut to the last scene. The young man has a speech prepared. It sounds very nicely religious, he would get an A in Sunday school for it, but it’s really designed as an instrument of self-justification: “Dad, you have to take me back because I’m sorry and I’m willing to earn my way.” Chances are the boy has refined this speech in anticipation of a disagreement with his dad. One word out of his dad’s mouth and this boy would surely ramp up the speech to twice the intensity with twice the finely tuned arguments.

So what happens? The dad does indeed totally disagree with his son. How? He runs to him, embraces him, kisses him, and doesn’t say a word about his son’s speech. The robe, the ring, the sandals, the calf, they’re all loaded with symbolism about the restored relationship the son now has with the father, in total rejection the son’s proposition. In hard times, when you have been shamed or you have been deeply hurt by another, and that person turns to you, forgive.

You can’t offer an expression of forgiveness until there is readiness to receive. Sure, you have forgiven someone from the moment they turned away! Or, maybe not! But now you have. But if you have to use any words to convince someone that they’re already forgiven, they’ll argue you into the ground that they don’t need your forgiveness or want your forgiveness or deserve your forgiveness. Not once did Jesus expressly say to anyone that they are forgiven except to do so by healing them at the same time. His healing was an expression of His forgiveness that was already true. God’s forgiveness, His excessive prodigal grace, is already yours. He awaits your turning to Him to receive His love and mercy. He doesn’t need your words, He doesn’t want your words; He wants only you.

Dave Thom

Friday, October 16, 2009

Finding Hope in Hard Times

Finding Hope in Hard Times

Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi

Hope is in the acceptance of the fact that things change. Hope is in the acceptance of the monsoon after the scorching heat of summer; the accepting of autumn before the winter’s serene snow covers the ground in white velvet; hope is in the dormant stages of the green grass ready to come up in the spring; and the flower encased in a bud ready to blossom at the right time, not hastened by the expectations of the observer. Hope is like the sun that shines in the sky, at times covered with layers of clouds, but one knows that it is there at all times. Hope is in letting go of things that have withered away and in embracing the new. It is not a matter of “finding” hope but a simple gentle act of reminding oneself that it is always there—just beneath your feet, within your heart, and on the horizon.

Buddhists do not dismiss or overlook the hard times but simply accept them as part of the unfolding cosmic drama, a drama that we all take part in. However, we do have a tendency to harden our heart during hard times by giving in to our “primal” sense of fear, insecurity, jealousy, anger, and low self-esteem. In some ways this hardened attitude just magnifies our experience of difficult times and reinforces our negative destructive emotions, thereby weakening our emotional and physical immune system as we face into challenges that lie ahead. Imagine walking on a dark rainy night and trembling with fear as you see what appears to be a coiled snake in your path. Lightning strikes and you see that it was just a coiled piece of rope and with a deep out-breath your fear vanishes. This flash of lightning is hope.

Hope is not just a matter of faith for the blind but requires us to cultivate courage and strength. There are several unknown factors in one’s life. The very fact that we go to sleep every night hoping to wake up the next day is an act of faith. Hope is just a natural way of being human—it is the foundation for “eternal” optimism of the religious or the realistic sanguinity of the secular. There is no other way to look at another moment or another day but with this sense of emerging hope. It is possible with every fresh breath to gain a new sense of hope and of confidence within oneself to do just the right thing with the time and energy one has-- right here, right now.

Be in gratitude; develop a sense of humor; smile often; be kind to others, and compassionate to oneself—all of these cultivate hope and give this life of ours a wonderful sense of meaning.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Second Chances

Tuesday in the Chapel
September 29, 2009

(1 Samuel 13:13-14 NIV) [13] "You acted foolishly," Samuel said. "You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. [14] But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD'S command."

Lately I have been thinking a lot about second chances. Last evening I sat through a discipline hearing for a student and felt the old hope that the young person would be given a chance to try again. Living in a dormitory we often deal with students who need a second chance, but the voice in my head also lets me know there is little sympathy for bleeding hearts. “You always want to give them another chance.” it says.

This sentiment has come to the fore because of the conduct on at the national level by John Edwards, but the problem of bad behavior seems to be an occupational malady of public officials who seem never to note that their sense of invincibility is seriously compromised and they never seem to note the impact of their behavior on others. In Edwards case his attractive and dying wife stands out as do the images of his young children. And of course there is the other woman and the child resulting from their liason. I think I would prefer to shoot those who behave as he has, but I cannot. I hope he has a chance to live a long and redemptive life.

We also have stories that remind us such a life is possible for public figures. Such is the tale of Ted Kennedy. His story should be a gospel text for those who believe in redemption. For many of us his pubic career should have ended at Chappaquiddick. It didn’t. It could have ended after the incident in Florida with his nephew imitating his bad behavior. It didn’t. When he died the stories told made us realize his contributions to the story of our Repubic and we were forced to rethink his life. He was more than many of us thought as his peers and critics were quick to to tell us. He lived long enough to achieve public redemption that some only find in memory when the edges are worn down and the wounds healed.

In the Bible there are lots of second chances. King David stands out for his ability to lead a long and convoluted life that could be described as redemptive. Condemned by his own prophets, guilty of adultery and the abuse of power he came to be known as one who was beloved by God. His story is instructive.

The point is that his hard times gave way to hope and constructive actions. He was able to redeem his time. The Bible is a book of second chances and it is appropriate on this day after Yom Kippur that we give attention to clearing the deck and starting over. When I think of strategies for coping with hard times, difficult outcomes, hard decisions, the notion that tomorrow can be better than today is important. Equally important is the notion that we do not need to go into tomorrow bearing the sins and failings of yesterday.

Let us pray: God may we be wise enough to believe in second chances; strong enough to offer them to all.