Thus I walked in as the minister was in the middle of expounding on the parable of the Prodigal Son. One of my all-time favorites, maybe because I've been such a wayward child of God all my life. It was a series on this parable that drew me back to Peace Mennonite months after the first time I left, after being publicly humiliated by the pastor during a service...that pastor left, and the interim pastor made room for this lost sheep to return to the fold. (That time was made easier by the outreach I felt from numerous people in the congregation. During that absence, I received several cards and calls from people who understood why I chose to stay away, who expressed appreciation for the spiritual gifts that I had brought to the church, who kept me in touch with church activities. Oddly, few of those folks are still with the church. This time, no one has tried to encourage me to come back.)
But the beauty of scripture is that it is always new. There is always something more to see in it, as in a mirror. There is always a new insight, a new lesson, a new juxtaposition of the verses with each other, or with my daily life.
...As I struggle through a time of chafing at the isolation of my daily life...
...Having yesterday found myself in yet another seemingly pointless discussion of Peace Mennonite's bizarre shunning of me for the past 5 years...
...Remembering two single women of about my age who committed suicide in recent years and understanding from my own experience how easily one could come to feel too lonely to go on...
...Having very recently chided someone's stereotypical disdain for Pollyanna as an unrealistic optimist, where in fact she is courageously honoring her minister father's love for the bible's many, many "rejoicing texts" by struggling to find something to rejoice about no matter what horrible things befall her...
...What caught my mind today was the centrality of rejoicing with others in this and the two preceding parables. The three parables are perfectly parallel: Something valuable is lost; it is found (through diligent searching in the case of the sheep and the silver talent, diligent hope and patience in the third parable); and rejoicing naturally ensues...rejoicing with relatives, friends and neighbors.
How have I overlooked, in these parables, the theme of rejoicing in community as a scriptural, spiritually important activity, all these years? I knew that celebrating--rejoicing--was important, and I've lived my life accordingly for a long time, but I never really "got" its spiritual significance until now. Possibly because there is no immediate family or community in my life at this time, to rejoice with or to mourn with.
Modern life co-opts the spiritual need of humans to celebrate and rejoice together, and trivializes it in many different ways. We are encouraged to celebrate "Hallmark holidays" like Mother's Day by purchasing unneeded gifts and eating unneeded food. We are encouraged to celebrate annual milestones like birthdays and anniversaries in the same manner. We are encouraged to make sports teams our idols, and celebrate their activities. We are supposed to celebrate "hump day" and "TGIF".
These are the kind of celebrating that the elder son resented not having been offered--the opportunity to make merry with his friends. A kind of meaningless celebration that is not about the successful hard work of mending of something broken, not about gratitude for a miracle, but simply about glorifying things that we take for granted. The eldest son, like today's culture, does not recognize the difference between revelry and true thanksgiving.
This kind of celebrating is simply so many excuses to indulge in excess, to spend money, to lose our souls in meaningless frenzies of spending and indulging. The economic system loves these sorts of celebrations. They are predictable. Commerce can tell us when and how to celebrate them, produce special foods and media bits and attire and memorabilia. Commerce can make it easy to "rejoice" because we can purchase everything we need.
In the end there is hardly a moment that we aren't supposed to be celebrating some pre-ordained "special day". Every day is special, according to the calendar. They blur together. Celebrating becomes a way of life. Any true miracles worthy of rejoicing are lost in the bustle of day-in, day-out celebrating. We become immune to rejoicing, numb to wonder.
What is lost is something precious. There is no room left to celebrate the little personal victories in our lives. Our neighbors are too busy to rejoice with us over the finding of our lost sheep, because it's Superbowl Sunday. They are too busy to join us in celebrating that we've found our lost coin, because they are out shopping for Halloween costumes and candy. They are too busy to join us in celebrating our reconciliation with a long-estranged loved one because they are taking all of the neighbor kids to the pool to celebrate someone's birthday with swimming and cake and ice cream and pizza and pop after which everyone is exhausted and strung out on sugar and broke.
It is not just that we are too busy celebrating to rejoice. We've also become a culture where these real causes of rejoicing could never be admitted in the first place. It's a shame to admit losing something (only a bad shepherd would lose a sheep--call the humane society! And why didn't she have those silver talents deposited in an FDIC insured account?) We don't talk about our family problems (unless we're rich enough that the media talks about them for us); if we haven't been able to share our heart-wrenching parental agony over Junior's running away with our credit card and not calling home, how can we explain our joy to the neighbors upon his chastened, repentant return?
Understanding that, these scriptures take on an even deeper meaning. Not only do these people--this culture we have sadly lost--have close relationships with families and neighbors so that they rejoice together over personal milestones, rather than empty conventional occasions, but they also are close enough that they can admit to one another the misfortunes and errors that have laid the grounds for the situation calling for rejoicing.
For nothing can be found unless we have somehow managed to lose it.
But a further sad coda on the theme. What do these parables become, when the rejoicing in community is stripped away? They are empty, nothing is left of them. There are a hundred sheep in the pen, ten coins in the purse, two sons working in the field. The journey of the human emotions and effort to attain these things is negated. A tree falling in the forest with no one to hear. Meaning is stripped away.
At some point, the unacknowledged struggle isn't simply worth it anymore. I wonder if this is what my departed friends discovered, and sought an end.
People need others to rejoice with, real rejoicing, the rejoicing of personal struggle and achievement.