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Devon Wattam Ink Slingers Spiritual Growth Testimonials

The Prodigal Son’s Older Brother? That’s Me.

“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” -Alexander Pope

When I was thirteen, my parents got divorced and then, in a surprising turn of events, remarried each other again six years later. Everyone expected my younger sisters and I to be overjoyed, but instead we were conflicted. After enduring a second marriage, a subsequent divorce, an annulment, and the mess that comes with all of those things, we were confused by their reconciliation, to say the least. 

As a sophomore in college, I just couldn’t comprehend how they could forget all of the things they said and did to each other and simply start again. I didn’t understand forgiveness.

Now that I’m married and a mother to my own children, it still baffles me to think about all of the hurdles that my family experienced during that period of our lives. Instead of confusion, though, I’m filled with awe. What we thought was a dark period where God had abandoned us was really a time of renewal, conversion, and healing. He was working to make each one of us new.

Even with such a profound example of forgiveness to aspire to, I’m easily distracted when it’s time to put it into practice. After all, we live in a world that knows nothing about mercy, only justice.

Recently, I heard the story of the Prodigal Son again at Mass. I’ve heard it a thousand times, and my focus is usually on how much I can relate to the son who wanted everything his way and in his own time – right now. What young person hasn’t felt that way?

For years I’ve brooded over how similar I am to the prodigal son and how much I adore the father for waiting to run out to him, ultimately restoring him to the family, despite his unworthiness. 

But there is a third person in that story who more often than not, I ignore altogether: the older brother. 

By getting married, working, having children, and no longer depending on my parents for financial support or permission to live my life, it’s easy to feel like I have little in common with the prodigal son anymore. That connection was from a previous life of immaturity and naïveté. 

In the meantime, however, I’ve unknowingly shifted from one son to the other.

The older brother works hard, does what he is told, and stays faithful to the father, but then becomes angry when he sees not just anyone, but his own brother being welcomed and rewarded when he doesn’t deserve it. He becomes indignant. He wants justice, a consequence for his brother’s foolishness. 

Make him work like a slave! Make him pay back what he owes! Anything to make it feel like he got what he was due. Afterall, what is mercy without justice?

Looking at him is like looking at myself in the mirror.

I knew the Lord was speaking to me during the Gospel that Sunday, but his message became even clearer when I read these words from St. Therese later that week with my book club: “It is because He is just that He is compassionate and full of gentleness, slow to punish and abounding in mercy, for He knows our frailty.” The Lord is merciful even when he is just; “He remembers we are nothing but dust.”

How often I demand justice, when the answer is mercy. How quickly I judge people who make a mistake and don’t reconcile to my liking, or worse, hold a grudge and can’t let it go. 

I may try to trick myself into thinking that I’m better than the fools who squander their father’s money on alcohol and prostitutes, but at the end of the day, I’m the one refusing to come into my father’s house because he welcomed my brother in without asking for a thing. Who’s the fool now? 

I couldn’t understand authentic forgiveness when I was nineteen because there was nothing in the world to compare it to. The world demands consequences for those who are at fault, but Jesus is not of this world. If I ever question that reality, I only need to look at my parents’ marriage. If they can forgive, so can I.

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Domestic Church Faith Formation Ink Slingers Michelle Parenting Spiritual Growth Vocations

God, Our Father

There is nothing more terrifying than realizing your child is missing.  You go to look and he’s gone.  You look high and low and that panic starts to set in.   You call; you search; you try to hold back the tears.  Still, he’s nowhere in sight.  You begin to pray, “Please Lord, please let him be ok! Please let me find him.  Please, I will never forgive myself if something has happened to him! He’s so little Lord!”

As much as there is no greater fear when we lose that child, there is no greater joy than when we find him!  We hold him close and thank God that he is ok and that he is safe in our arms.  When we are finally settled we allow ourselves to think of the things that “could” have happened and we pray a prayer of thanksgiving that none of them did.

It took 20 years of parenting before I experienced having a child go “missing”.  The problem was we didn’t know he was “missing” at all!  We thought he was safe inside with his siblings watching him.  I was in the bedroom cleaning when the doorbell rang and our neighbor informed us that Jake, just barely walking, had made his way outside and was playing with the lawn mower.  My heart beat wildly as I went out to get him.  Not only was he playing with the lawn mower but he had toddled past a very full kids’ pool that was sitting on our driveway.  I picked him up and hugged him close.  I thanked my neighbor and told him it was the first time I had ever “lost” one of my kids.  He said, “Oh! It’s ok.  It happens!”  I sighed, close to crying and told him, “No, it’s not ok.  So many things could have happened to him.”  My heart was so happy he was ok but my mind was racing thinking of all the things that could have happened to a little one outside alone.

I often wonder if that is how God feels about us.  While we are prepared for much of the “adult” world… working, paying bills, grocery shopping, getting kids to where they need to be, et cetera, most of us are still just young children, barely toddling, in the ways of the spiritual world.  Does God panic like I did thinking of all the things that could happen to us while we make our way through this big world if we aren’t firmly holding His hand?

When we strike out on our own, without God holding our hand, we are like my toddler Jake.  We are exposed to dangers that, without proper guidance, could seriously hurt us… physically and more importantly, spiritually.  God, the ever present parent, doesn’t want that for us.  He wants us to turn to Him for guidance.  He wants to protect us.  He feels like we do with our own children.  He hurts when we hurt.  He worries over us and He only wants what is good for us.

Just as our children eventually grow and learn, we do as well.  God allows us to both succeed and fail so that we grow in mind and spirit.  He knows that success and failure, good times and bad, will help form us into the people He hopes we become.   How we use the experiences can benefit us tremendously.  However, if we are trying on our own we may not incorporate those lessons into our lives the way we should.  We need guidance.  We need a hand to hold.  We need God.

God provides us His hand in various ways. He gives us Himself through the Scriptures, through the Church, through prayer, and most importantly in Holy Eucharist at Mass. But He is a wise father who knows we often need someone present that we touch, can call on the phone, or physically hold our hand.  Many times He presents us with holy men and women in our lives to help guide us as well.  It may be a devout priest, a wise spiritual director, or a friend who lives his/her life in a way that magnifies the Lord in all they do. He knows that we, like our toddlers, need a lot of instruction to stay on the safe path in this dangerous world.

God is such an amazing father.  He is with us from the very beginning, holding our hands, guiding and protecting.  Sometimes we squirm from His protection and face the dangerous world alone.  I have no doubt that when we return God’s heart is so full of love and relief that all He can do is hug us close and cry over our safe return.   We have a perfect role model for our own parenting.  When our children wander from us, when we feel they are lost, when they are facing the world alone we only have to look at our own Father and know that He has faced the same fears that we face.  He knows the worry, the distress, and the fear but He also knows the relief and the joy when we return to Him.

Thank you God for your ever-loving presence in our lives.  Thank you for being a Father who loves us no matter what.  Thank You for Your guidance.  Thank You for welcoming us back into Your arms when we wander from their safety and protection.  Keep us close to You always.

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Allison Faith Formation Ink Slingers Spiritual Growth

Being the Prodigal’s Older Brother

Being the Prodigal's Older BrotherI am the prodigal’s older brother. I never understood the celebration and I always understood the anger. I mean, I was glad the young man came to his senses and returned to the father, but I’m on the big brother’s side with, “You never even gave me a goat (let alone the fattened calf) after all my years of work.” I was a good church girl, never involved in typical American teen rebellion. I married a church boy and expected God to bless me because I was good. It was more of a business arrangement than a love affair. And there was the difference ~ Love.

Love (and subsequent humility) is a dominant theme of Jesus’ “travel narrative” from the gospel of Luke, a chronological relaying of healings and teachings, and where the parable of the prodigal son is located:

Go and do likewise (show mercy) (10:37).

You Pharisees clean the outside but inside are full of wickedness (11:39).

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom (12:32).

Some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last (13:30).

Let the little children come to me (18:16).

There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance (15:7).

Was no one found to return and give praise to God but this foreigner? Rise and go; your faith has made you well (17:18-19).

The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven but beat his breast, saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other (“good” Pharisee) for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled but he who humbles himself will be exalted. (18:13-14).

It took God’s “no” to a miraculous healing, years of King David-like keening (Why do the wicked prosper? Hear my cry! Answer me!), and conversion to the Catholic Faith for me to learn a few things about life, unfairness, suffering, rejoicing, my own ugly sinfulness, and absolute forgiveness. For both brothers are sinners, the wild one and the do-gooder. Both brothers need the father’s extravagant love to pardon unpardonable acts, the one who squandered his inheritance in riotous living and the one given to anger and jealousy. Both brothers have a place in their father’s arms, the returning humiliated one and the present appalled one. Both brothers need forgiveness because all sins separate us from God ~ the big, obvious ones and the polite, acceptable ones.

G.K. Chesterton, in “Orthodoxy,” imagines Christianity as a huge, ragged, romantic rock, compared with paganism’s smooth, symmetrical, marble pillar. This rock, although battered and swaying, is perfectly balanced because of its exaggerated excrescences distributed among all of Christendom. Even the Chartres cathedral contains planned, beautifully unmatched elements by various roof heights and materials, geometric forms, and stained glass subjects. The Church of Christ needs, uses, ministers to, and loves both kinds of brothers, all formations of the rock.

The sins of the older brother are no less heartbreaking and vile, for all their civilities. What’s worse is his lack of humility and charity (which the younger brother understood, with all his troubles). This is why Edmund is my favorite Narnia character. Sure, his siblings were brave, adventurous, and loyal; but only Edmund, forgiven after betraying truth and love, understood the sacrificial, lavish love of Aslan more deeply than the others.

So what must I, and other polite, sinful older brothers do? We must fight that anger and jealousy with big guns:
Fill our lives with Holy Communion, confession, Scriptures, and prayers; ask Saint Jerome and our guardian angels to pray for us and aid us. And above all, ask the Holy Spirit who loves to give us gifts, to fill us with love for our Father and for all people. “Love does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth”(I Corinthians 13:6). Our Father, the Father of us all, reminds His oldest son that “Everything I have is yours. Now we must rejoice and celebrate because your brother was dead and is alive again!”

I will rejoice. I may not understand this unfair life but I will rejoice with my Father over lost loved ones coming home. Rejoice!