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From Generation to Generation
|John 15: 3 "I loved you the way
God, who is as close to me as a mother or father, has
loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. This is the
very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your
friends." Translated by Eugene Peterson
I John 4:7, 19-21 Dear friends, let us love one another, because love comes from God. We love because God first loved us. If we say we love God, but hate others, we are liars. For we cannot love God, whom we have not seen, if we do not love others, whom we have seen.
Luke 6: 31 "Do for others just what you want them to do for you."
Were following stories from different generations this month. Today its childhood. Next Sunday well do a youth tale. The following will be a mid-life tale. Well break from the specific generations for New Members Sunday on February 27, and then conclude the theme with an elder tale on March 5. Weve got great stories lined up for each generation.
Today think of the first thing that comes to mind when I ask, "What was your favorite fairy tale as a child?" Focus on it. Now take a minute to share it with someone sitting next to you.
What are your favorite stories? Name a few and see how many others share those with you?
Bruno Bettelheim says that the seemingly simple folk tales of childhood give us some important insights into human development. In childrens tales, the main characters are children, or at the oldest, adolescents. A child often leaves home on a journey, as in Little Red Riding Hood, or is made to leave home. They may struggle with a lonely inner journey, like Cinderella. They look for a true self, which may be symbolized by a new love, great wealth, or a magic city. Most childrens tales end with the dream coming true in the phrase, "They lived happily ever after".
Childrens tales may unwittingly become the script for more parts of our lives than we realize. They may cause us to flirt with danger as we seek to live the role of a fairy tale hero. We may move restlessly from one relationship to another yearning for the perfect lover, the prince or princess.
And we often encounter somewhere in mid-life a rude awakening that we never live happily ever after without difficult interruptions of pain and sorrow. As a result we may prematurely turn our backs on the beauty of childrens tales, both for our children and for ourselves. Our desire to clean up fairy tales and remove their violence, sexism, and unrealistic dreams was parodied quite well in the collections of Politically Correct Fairy Tales. I love, for example, the politically correct Little Red Riding Hoods reply to the wolf, who warns her that its not safe to walk in the woods alone. She says, "I find your sexist remark offensive to the extreme, but I will ignore it because of your traditional status as an outcast from society, the stress of which has caused you to develop your own, entirely valid, world view."
By not telling children the nursery rhymes and fairy tales of generations we hurt them. Take for example the situation which occurred on the quiz show "So You Want to be a Millionaire," last week. Regis Philbin asked one young man the first the first question for $100. "In the nursery rhyme, Little Jack Horner sat in a corner, eating his Christmas pie. He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a what?" You who have been schooled in nursery rhymes all know the answer is what? Plum. Thats correct. The contestant said, "Blackbird". Hell be the Wrong Way Corrigan, the Cliff Clavin, the Bill Buckner of quiz shows for the rest of his life. So we need to prepare our children for future quiz shows.
But more than that, we need to honor our childrens tales in both their gifts and their delusions.
I loved Cinderella. At its best it gave me sympathy for the outcast, the misunderstood, and a sense of romance which I carry with me today. At its worst, it infected me with a Prince Charming syndrome, which tends to sidetrack me with delusions of rescuing damsels in distress. Superman was my favorite childhood hero. At best it gave me a sense of mission to work for truth, justice, and even the American way. At worst, I think I have thrown out my back trying to take on the evils of the world.
Childhood fairy tales are like dreams that have been passed on from generation to generation to address the basic issues that children need to grow. They let us touch universal ideals, which always have their excesses.
The story I picked today for the children, Legs, is not a traditional fairy tale, but it has potential for becoming one. I found it in a collection of stories by James Carroll, written back in 1970. Carroll was a priest back then, doing campus ministry in Boston. He has since quit the priesthood and become a novelist. I love the story, Legs, because it illustrates compassion, that ability to understand what it is like to live inside anothers skin.
Legs gives me that moral challenge to think of what I would do if I was given a chance to overcome my greatest disability, that which holds me back from my fondest dream, but at the expense of another, someone dear and close to me.
When I tell this story, I put myself into it. I use the landscape of the farm of my childhood in Pennsylvania. I see myself running down the hill to the woods, crossing the stream climbing the next hill and entering the deepest part of the woods. It is a real place to me.
When I put myself into this story, I feel the words of Jesus coming to life in flesh and blood. Our lives are intertwined. The people closest to me, with whom it is easy to fuss and fight like rival siblings, are those whom God calls me to love, first. Love is putting myself on the line for another. And I hope that when I am offered magic at the expense of another, I will turn it down.
This story, to me, touches the deepest mystery of the gift Jesus brings to my faith, one I am still struggling to fully learn.
O God we pray the prayers of childhood fairy tales. We pray for old fears of being lost, Hansel and Gretel-like in the woods
We pray for decisions no one else understood, like selling the last cow for a handful of magic beans that were supposed to climb all the way to the sky.
We pray for longings of escape into beauty, of rescuing and being rescued, of finding our hearts true desire, of slaying evil once and for all as a fire-breathing dragon.
We remember those who read us stories, with thankfulness never quite fully expressed.
And now, we gather these memories, the hopes and fears, and like a weary, wary, wizard, we shift from fairy tale to gospel. For you O God, have shown us a truth that the world would claim was too good to be true, the truth that proclaims, "Seek and you will find, ask and it will be given to you."
The truth that says, "if you become like
children, the kingdom of heaven will be yours,"
We dont necessarily see this father as saintly beyond belief, an otherworldly father painted only to symbolize God. The father is one who is glad to have one he loves return home. It seems simple, but think of how often in life our stubbornness gets in the way of being this kind of person.
I saw the Stanley Kubrick film this summer, Eyes Wide Shut. Let me be clear. Just because I mention a movie doesnt mean I recommend it. There is much in this movie that is crude, cruel, and clumsy. But the story has an important element. In the film Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise play a young wife and husband. One evening Kidman tells Cruise that she had fantasized a sexual relationship with a Navy officer whom she saw walking across the lobby of the hotel at which they were spending their vacation. She tells Cruise she never had sex with this man, but she confesses that she found her desire for him overwhelming.
The husband played by Cruise sinks into a morass of stubborn jealousy. Even though his wife was not actually unfaithful to him, he gets stuck imagining her fantasies of sex with this Navy guy. Instead of forgiving and welcoming like the prodigals father when his wife confesses her own fantasies, Cruise takes off on his own journey of riotous living in all manner of dangerous sexuality. Finally, he realizes he has come close to death, he has endangered the life of a friend, and has brought the threat of violence and death into his own home. He comes to his senses, acknowledging his own descent into riotous living, and his wife welcomes him home, like the loving parent of the scripture.
Where is this awakening for the father in the prodigal story? If the sons call was to wake up from the stubbornness of his own self-destructive life and return to his truest self, then the fathers call is to remain true to the love he had for his son when he blessed him on his way. Sometimes the call of God is to not change, but to remain steady. God calls the father to not revert, as did the husband in Eyes Wide Shut, to a stubborn pride.
The fathers ability to flow with kindness, healing the wound of his family rather than focusing on the sin explodes in these words: "This son of mine was dead, and he has come back to life." I may be wrong, but I think this is the only kind of resurrection Jesus ever spoke about.
The awakening in the father continues to flow. In the courtyard is a print of Rembrandts painting of the prodigal. It is said to be something of a self-portrait. I have been told that the arm which embraces the returning child is definitely a feminine hand. Whether intentional or not, Rembrandt has captured that gentle, forgiving welcome home that springs from and includes the more traditionally feminine role. Literature is full of stubborn, punishing, proud fathers rejecting wayward children and loving grateful mothers embracing them.
Rembrandt suggests to us all, men and women, that in this situation we need to draw on the feminine parts of ourselves, the God-given gift of our completeness, to free ourselves from the pain of our own stubbornness.
III. The older son Luke 15:25-32
(Rob Buttons song "The Older Son")
The story of the third son speaks to everyone of us when we are in the position of being the responsible one, the child who doesnt cause trouble, the worker who loyally does his or her job, the friend who remains true through ups and downs. Whoever has taken this role knows the feeling of the older son. This part of us can quite stubbornly get locked to our principles when the screw-up, goof-off repents and gets all the attention.
The older brother has good reason to be resentfully stubborn? What does Jesus say to him? He has the father "soothe him." We all know that the writers of the gospels edited much of what we find in our bibles. Sometimes they added or changed things to suit their own needs. But when you get a statement like this, "the father tried to soothe him," which is without rancor or judgment, we can assume that it is authentic Jesus. Its not like the parable of the Great Supper when the master of the house vows that those who refused his invitation will suffer outside in the darkness with great weeping wailing, and gnashing of teeth. I think we can trust that this soothing rather than judging is pure Jesus speaking through the father. The father can only say what he said to the servant, "your brother was dead but has come back to life "
We never know if the older son truly accepted his fathers explanation. I like to think it turned out the way it does in the song Rob wrote, that angry and hurt as he was, the older son understood that he was raised to love, not hate. That conclusion is left to our guess. The younger son represents Gods call to swallow his pride when he was wrong and return to the home of his true self. The older son represents Gods call to swallow his pride when he was right, lest he lose the home of his true self.
Sometimes God calls us to ease up on our principles, not to be so stubborn about being good, for the sake of loving one who returns.
So we have three kinds of call, the younger sons turning around, the fathers willingness to welcome, and the older sons call to understand he indeed has always been treasured and may join in this welcome. These three calls all work more powerfully if we remember the words of the Call to Worship, to think of the barricades of our lives not as sins but as wounds. Sophie Burnham says that we are not called to impale our sins on a pike and mount them on a tower wall to be reviled and cursed. Our wounds are signs of our holiness. Awakening to tenderness heals them. "We are to embrace the wounds, wash them bandage them with loving care." As Flora Wuellner points out, life in faith is not so much about forgiving sins as healing wounds.
I know I am stubborn. I know I talk too much. And when I realize I should be listening, I talk more. I get stuck in my own positions. I get angry with others who seem to have it easier than I do. If God is anywhere in my life, God is in the voices that call me away from my stubbornness, allowing me to embrace these wounds that block my life. Then I can trust, that in returning to a self that is truer than the one I began with, I may receive a warm and loving welcome home. Or conversely, if I welcome those who have wounded me, I will witness and be part of a rising from death to life as rich as any Easter.