I believe that all healing starts with and stands on TRUTH. And I believe that in order to move forward, we have to start right where we are at. We have all been in the Prodigal son’s shoes at sometime in our lives. We have all gone off to a distant country in search of something — maybe some of us traveled 1000 miles from home, but maybe some of us didn’t even have to leave our own backyards… but each of us has experienced a time where we lived undisciplined lives and wasted everything we had.
For me that happened in the late 90’s. I was unhappily married – you see my husband was a hemophiliac and had many blood transfusions as a child before our blood supply was safe. When our 2nd son wasn’t even one year old, my husband was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. He was so sick for so long and it was not uncommon for him to be hospitalized for weeks at a time. I worked full time and was raising two young boys all while caring for an ill spouse. Life never stopped for me and eventually, I just couldn’t handle it. On top of my daily frustrations, I was so angry at God for doing this to us. I blamed God for all our problems. Without a Higher Power in my life, I just survived the chaos of every single day and found myself always wondering if that day would be my husband’s last day. I used to hope he would just die because I was so exhausted. During this time, I worked a 3rd shift job with the post office and discovered a distant world where I sought escape. Many nights my job ended early and I found relief in booze and became friendly with a man at work. Five years later, I left my husband seeking the freedom I longed for. I believed my new-found independence would solve my problems.
Then over the next 5 years, I experienced an increase in my drinking and a decline in my personal life and conduct. My life just got crazier. I bought a house thinking that was the answer to my problems. I quickly discovered the house was not the solution and the truth was I burned out, spent up and emotionally at my bottom. I found myself unhappier and lonelier than I had ever been in my life. I felt utterly lost. Even dealing with AIDS everyday looked better than what my life I had become…
It was a Wednesday morning and I came into the house from the garden (something I love to do) and thought the day would only be more perfect with a beer. I opened the frig and as I was looking at the cold, golden, glistening bottles of beer… I came to myself… I heard God speak… “Go to AA,” God commanded. And I literally did (at noon that day and later again at 5:30pm)… and my life has never been the same.
For those of us who have struggled with substances and recovered, this is a familiar tale. But now, as a sober person, I have still found ways to go off and squander my inheritance. Over the years, there have been countless dark times and emotionally tinged journeys which have brought up the past and put my childhood right in my face. God has offered up many subtle invitations to go deeper within myself. These journeys first appear as pain and then I discover that they serve a purpose – to root out hidden spaces and mine deep caverns in order to heal. But these trips into the depth of myself are always painful and always looks ugly. I’ve learned when I stay with them, I am emerge more whole and wiser.
Last August, my Mom died of cancer – sort of unexpectedly – she had lived with it for 10 years and so when she took a turn, we expected she’d rebound. At that same time, my husband and I were dealing with his anxiety and depression which had debilitated him for months on two previous occasions. I was scared and sad but I felt like I was the one that needed to hold it all together. Later in the year, good friends abruptly left our church and it was really confusing and hard for me. I tried to bridge the gap between everyone and to also keep the rest of my life together which meant working as an advocate for homeless individuals (which in and of itself is an emotionally challenging job), working on my master’s degree, volunteering with the ministries of the Anchor church, and also leading a weekly Celebrate Recovery group. “I just need to keep towing the line,” I told myself, but discovered I couldn’t maintain the stoic facade of keeping the train moving. I found myself yet again in a place where the desire to squander the property and go off to a distant county sounded enticing. Do you ever just have those days where you want to get in your car and disappear forever? I hit a wall – and when you hit a wall, freak out and lose your mind a little bit… God meets you there. You have a moment where you come to yourself and there is God just standing there waiting for you with open arms and open hands. Almost like God is saying, “Well, well, well… here we are again. Now how can I help you my dear?” And we sigh with relief, and we sob our tears, and stand up and dust the ashes off our clothes and find the courage and strength to take one step forward. Thank God I continue to find that courage…
Maybe the Prodigal son left home under bad terms and had bad intentions, but I like to let my imagination go and think that maybe the Prodigal didn’t leave with bad intentions. Maybe he wanted to go see the world and discover who he was? We have those friends who report that their kids have gone off on a European adventure for a summer and we say, “How cool!” The truth is that maybe they are really headed to Amsterdam to smoke dope for a year, right? Would we celebrate if we knew the real motive behind the trip? We go off and out into the world with big ideas, hopes and dreams – and these are amazing and good things to have – but sometimes the world deals us up another story. Or sometimes the undealt-with pain of our lives drives us to leave the farm and seek comfort in the uncomfortable and the empty.
Maybe when the Prodigal got to the distant country he made friends with people who only wanted to use him for his money. Maybe they weren’t real friends who cared about him, but were happy to leave him with the bar tab. Maybe this was very painful for him to learn because maybe at home he understood what a true friend was. Maybe he discovered that he really didn’t have a good sense of himself, maybe he learned that he was co-dependent, maybe he found out he was full of fear and maybe he became a victim of abuse and got trapped in a relationship that he didn’t know how to leave.
Then he found himself hungry – his basic needs of food, shelter and companionship unmet. He got desperate and took a job literally a as slave. Maybe to survive that job and his very life, he needed to get high every morning. Maybe he even did things to get drugs that he said he’d never do. He lowered himself and went against his Jewish heritage and worked with pigs (remember that Jewish people don’t eat or even touch pork! Recall in Luke Chapter 8 when Jesus sends demons into swine because that’s how little regard the Jewish people had for pigs!)
When my husband worked at Whole Food he said there was a food shoot that went into a dumpster – all the food waste from all departments got dumped in one bin – the meats department, the seafood department, the produce, the bakery… all of them into one bin. Then the pig farmer would literally come and pick it up to feed his pigs. Even though it was organic, can you just imagine being so hungry that you’d be willing to eat from there? It might not be about the actual condition of the food, but really is about the heart, and the level of embarrassment and shame that you would feel. You might wait for the cover of dark and with your hands plunged into raw chicken skin, fish heads, rotten greens and black bananas (maybe mixed in with a few cinnamon buns…) you might ask yourself, how did I get here???
In that moment there would be ONE split second of revelation, one millisecond of clarity where God’s voice would speak to you and say… “WHAT??? What was that? Did I just hear GOD?”
What would God say to you…? Who has heard the voice of God in dark and desperate times?
And when he came to himself the Prodigal son said… “how many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!” He was not only speaking about his physical hunger, but he was emotionally, relationally and spiritually starved. How many people do we see every day on the streets of Wilmington like that? How many times have we pulled up to a traffic light and right next to our car stands a guy flying a sign which reads, “Hungry… will work for food.” And, we turn our heads in the other direction???
What the Prodigal son learned and what I would also learn in my recovery experience is humility. I believe that we cannot help those dying of hunger until we see how we ourselves have died to those same hungers time and time again.
Philip spoke last week in our sermon about the Truth of Good Friday. He said we also experience the death of self – or the multiple deaths of self all throughout our lives. This is God’s way of preparing us for resurrection, rebirth and recreation. We have to carry our own crosses toward a hill that promises death and pain, in order that we might live. It’s a courageous act of faith to walk into the darkness when you can’t see the light. It’s an act of desperation to eat the food of swine, but just after that next bite… there could be a moment of revelation that will change your life forever.
I was five years sober, when my husband reached the end of his life. My former mother-in-law called me and asked that I come and join them at hospice. The father of my children had lived for 12 years with AIDS. For six days I got to be there with my sons and for their grandparents. Was it easy? No way. It was challenging on many different levels, but because I had embraced humility, made amends for the wrongs I had done, and lived my life each day asking God how I could serve him, they hosted me at the end of my husband’s life. The Prodigal – who is me – was welcomed home after making many mistakes.
Listen, it’s hard and challenging to trust in God when life is tough. Trust me, I’ve been there and I have no magic solution on how to navigate the dark times of life. But I know humility is key and I have learned that we can best trust in God when we are supported by each other – and that means accepting the person and not judging them for where we are all at right here and right now. When we can look our brother or sister in the eye with compassion and understanding and say, “I am the Prodigal too… can I journey alongside of you?” – that’s when we are home.
Our task is to remain committed to creating and sustaining a community of safety where people can speak their truth. Behind closed doors, I might be squandering my inheritance right now, the guy sitting beside me might have gone off to a distant county and my friend sitting across the pew might be eating the pods of pigs. We can’t judge where people are because we’ve all been there ourselves. And for those of us who presently live our lives in the precious and beautiful moments where we have come to our selves, our task is to hold hope for those who will soon be coming home. It is our task to keep watch at the house which sits at the top of the long road and be ready to host a celebration and to run towards our brothers and sisters in an act of a joyous home coming!
I remember when I first got sober, standing outside of my homegroup meeting with my sponsor and crying that I’d never get this AA, 12-Step, God thing! The truth was at that time, I still hated God. I hated God for all the crap my life had been. She looked me dead in the eye and said, “I’m going to believe for you until you believe for yourself.” That was life changing. It was like a lightening bolt pierced my soul. She first loved me before I could love myself, as God first loves us. She spoke life and truth and promise into my unbelief. It was enough… praise God, it was enough.
I stand before you today, not because I’m special, but because God called an alcoholic back from the gates of hell and gifted me with purpose and meaning for my life. He lead me to a program of action that was proven, where I was accountable to others and in that community, I learned acceptance and was supported as I recreated my life. I have found this community again at the Anchor church. The Anchor is my home where I can be where I am, am loved for who I am because my friends here, have become my family and they hold hope for me when I can not.
In my recovery process, I eventually saw the truth and approached my own father, whom I had hated for 30 years (I hated him since I was 5 years old.) I said, “Father, I have sinned against you.” Today my mom, who was the middle-man in my relationship with me and my dad, is gone. I remember a few months ago when I called my dad and we were on the phone for 50 minutes! I had never talked to my dad on the phone for more than 5 minutes in my entire life. It was always, “Hi Dad, How are you? Is Mom there?” That is God at work. That is the reunion of the Father and the Son.
When we come to ourselves and are humbly willing to even eat the pods of pigs, God offers us a new life, but we have to walk it out. We have to own our choices and take responsibility for our lives. We have to stop blaming and whining and confess our wrongs. We have to look at our shortcoming squarely in the eye. We have to been willing to go to any length to submit ourselves to a process of change and allow God to recreate our lives. God meets the humble heart over and over and over again. And the good news is… there is a party waiting for us – a homecoming, a celebration, a return to wholeness.
If you don’t think there’s a party waiting for you… let us – the Anchor church family, the Hope Center, Switchin Gears – be your host. Let us be your cheerleader, let us cater your banquet, let us be your family, your friend… we can be each other’s salvation. Let us hold hope and believe for you until you can believe for yourself…