Text: Luke 15:11-32
Beginning again is hard. It’s more difficult than beginning something new. When we begin something new, we have a beginner’s mind, an attitude of openness, eagerness and lack of preconceptions. We don’t take anything for granted. We pay attention to everything we see. We embrace new experiences as we go along. Beginning again, however, is a different story. We experience lots of ups and downs, gains and losses, and successes and failures. We accumulate not only blessings but also pains as time goes by. Sometimes those pains are too much to bear, so we develop ways to protect ourselves from the pains. Sometimes we become numb thinking it is what it is. Sometimes we try to bring about a change, but instead we blurt out negative words we have been repeating in our mind unconsciously. We feel guilty because of what we have done or left undone. Or we feel ashamed of how we have failed to be who we meant to be. The enemy within us knows how to successfully sabotage our best intention. Most of us would rather choose to begin something we’ve never done before than to begin again. Worse yet, we would rather choose to sit on the fence, doing nothing, resolving nothing, as if that’s the way it is. This kind of complacency is doing more harm than good. We must begin again, not just one time but many times throughout our journey. We must renew every relationship we have every day and every moment.
The story we heard today, the parable of the prodigal child, teaches us how to begin again. The younger of the two brothers demands his inheritance. The father divides his property between them. The younger one gathers his wealth, leaves home and travels to a distant country. It doesn’t take long for him to be in need; he spends all that he has excessively, and a severe famine takes place throughout that country. He finds himself eating what pigs are eating because no one gives him anything. The life at the bottom turns out to be a turning point: he turns around and is heading where he always belongs, his home. He has to be away from home to find his way home. He has to experience nothingness – the vanity of material wealth, and the fragility of his own life in order to appreciate the abundant life he used to take for granted. It is all of these negative experiences, including facing his own mortality as he is dying of hunger, that help restore him to life. The difference between the two brothers is not whether they obey or disobey their father, but whether they have ever been to the bottom where the only option available is to begin again.
Stephen Jenkinson, a teacher, author, spiritual activist and the founder of Orphan Wisdom School points out that we people in North America live in a death phobic society. For five years, Jenkinson headed the counselling team of Canada’s largest home-based palliative care programme. Working with hundreds of dying people and their families, he witnessed a “wretched anxiety” around the end of life. He suggests that we hold dear the fact that nothing we hold dear lasts. The following is an excerpt from a video, The Meaning of Death.
“Life does not feed life. Life is always on the receiving end of life. It’s death that feeds life. It’s the end of life that gives life a chance. It’s a hurtful kind of comfort that the dominant culture of North America is in some kind of beginning stage of a terminal swoon. I think the world whispers ‘All we need of you is that you be human. That’s it.’ What has to die is your refusal to die, your refusal for things to end. If that dies, life can be fed by that.”
That’s what happens to the prodigal child. He has come to a realization that nothing he holds dear lasts, so his refusal for things to end dies. It is when he is able to see through to the end that he is able to begin again.
The good news is that we don’t have to be away from home to find home. We don’t have to lose everything in order to find what really matters to us. We don’t have to reach the bottom in order to turn around. We can begin again when we live each new day as if it’s the first and the last day or our lives. We can begin again when we realize that nothing we hold dear lasts. We can possess nothing. Even the air we inhale must be exhaled. We can begin again when we know who we really are in the grand scheme of things. Jenkinson also says, “Life has to continue, not we have to continue, because Life is not our lifespan or our children’s lifespan or the lifespan of what we hold dear.” In the meantime, we know how blessed we are to be part of something much bigger and older than any of us, the gospel, God’s love story for the beloved whole creation. We, like the prodigal child, take time to come home, but God, like the parent, sees us first, and filled with compassion, embraces us and kisses us, celebrating this very moment with us even now. So we can begin again and again.