Every once in awhile, sitting in church, listening to the sermon, a flash of light comes to my awareness, and after that I can't unknow what I now know. (Or, I should say, I can't unknow it, but I so easily forget it!) Yesterday, it was an awareness of my own silliness. Okay, it's usually an awareness of my own silliness. To be specific about this time's awareness, I have realized that I was surprised that it takes effort to "do" - to do anything. As much as I thought I had rejected the popular pablum recommending that I "let go and let God," I have found a pocket of treasured outrage that the effort of doing exists.
Here's what I mean. This is a Rembrandt painting, showing the return of the Prodigal Son. The painting shows the moment most often heard about - most often meditated upon - most often the focus of the story.
You know the story, right? The father is rich and has two sons. The family inheritance will be divided, but the younger son doesn't want to wait. So he goes to the father and asks for his share so he can go out into the big wide world and have his own life with his own money. The father gives it to him, and out he goes.
He has a grand old time. Wine, women, and song ... he parties like ... well, like the son of a rich man. And he's got lots of help for spending all that money. And, just as would happen at any time in history, wherever there are people who want to party, when the money ran out, the friends went away. So there he was. Far from home, deserted by his party pals, and idiotically without a penny to spend on food for his own lunch. We don't feel sorry for the fool at this point. What an idiot. How foolish. I'd never act like that, that's for sure.
He takes a job slopping the pigs (and he's a Jew - this isn't exactly a job he was eager to have), and then he becomes aware of the fact that the pig food looks good to him, and the servants in his father's household eat better than this. Clang! He gets an idea. He decides to go home and work for his father. At least he'll get decent food in his belly and a roof over his head.
The father in the painting is obviously not hiring a new servant. The father has been watching for his wayward son - and he sees him - and goes out to greet him - and throws a party because his son has returned. (And the older son gets his knickers in a twist over this party because nobody ever threw him a party, and he didn't go out and squander the family wealth making an idiot of himself ... you've gotta be kidding me! A party? The old man certainly has an interesting set of priorities.)
And the teachers talk about the foolishness of a sinner, and the open arms of the waiting father, and the foolishness of the faithful son for being jealous over the delight of his father, and the inheritance the older son will have forever ... but yesterday a new idea inserted itself into my head, and the readings weren't even about the Prodigal! The readings were about the difference between being a slave with no choice and a servant with real responsibility and the attendant necessity to work - to do - to take action. And that's the point where the Prodigal peeked 'round the corner and winked at me. (That guy irritates me sometimes.)
I just saw something.
A couple of somethings.
1. The father knew perfectly that there was nearly no chance that the younger son, with all that inheritance ready at hand, would become a successful entrepreneur. He had to know what kind of person this young man was. And he gave him the money. He was ... well ... he was an enabler! He did not take over the situation for the son's own good. He left the decision-making to the son.
God does that. He won't make our decisions for us. He waits - every time - for "be it unto me according to thy word."
2. The son didn't just "repent" in his heart. (This is the thing that made me groan with new insight.) Once again, it's not what you know, it's what you do. He did know he was in a mess. He was sorry. He didn't really want to join the pigs at the trough. He had the right "attitude" -- and that means nothing without the getting of himself up off his fanny, and the moving of himself down the road to travel back to he knew not what, but he was ready to take the action because ... well, because all his other options were rotten.
The point I'm trying to make is this. After all this time, it has become apparent that I'm right back in that same danged wheel groove. My cart has lurched back into those deep ruts I dug for myself during years of modern evangelicalism. I was careful, back then, always to keep in mind that my mind and will were fallen and were always to be suspected of deep betrayal against God, and that I must fix this by understanding more and more. I believed that it was possible to "let go and let God" and to relinquish all "struggle" except the struggle to understand more perfectly. I could be changed from the inside out. As my perspective became more Godly, so would my life. In no event was I supposed to "work" - works are of the devil. All works. Work. Effort. God already did it all for me, and I was irreverent and ungrateful not to realize it.
As one of our kids said more than a decade ago, "they b'lieve some of it, and we b'lieve all of it." He was right about that, and the all of it to understand here is that it works from the inside out and from the outside in. People aren't pure spirit. Our bodies and what we do with them matter. Habits make character, and it takes real effort to build habits of that kind. It's not that God hasn't paid the price. It's not that we can ever be good enough to get to heaven on our merits - at all - in any way. The father was the rich one, and the money for the son was inheritance money. Old money. He didn't earn any of it.
But when he'd squandered it? When he needed to buck up his ideas and straighten up and fly right? Was it a matter of understanding only? Did he have a bad attitude?
He was in the wrong place.
And so, in order to rectify the situation, he had to take action. He had to use his will and he had to work at it to get back home.
Why am I always surprised by this? The deep ruts in the road catch the wheels of my cart every time, and there I am again, going where the ruts take me - there I am again, surprised that it's my will and my work that are required. Again I find myself believing the currently favorite idea of our whole modern world ... that we are all the sum of our situations, and are somehow not to be judged by what we do. "I am not my fat" - well, duh. I am, however, fully responsible for my food intake and energy output and sensible or silly self-care, as the case may be. "That's the drink talking." Oh, really? You've found a talking bottle of booze? Wow. Take that show on the road. You'll make a million.
There's no going to where I want to go unless I free the wheels of my little cart from the ruts in this road - again. Again!
Again it seems to me that Heaven is where we will be what we know, and we will do what we are, and we will not have to be reminded all the time.