Like all of us, I have made many journeys in life. Some have been simple and straightforward and others more complex and challenging. Some have been physical journeys that have taken me away from home on some adventure or a retreat into a peaceful space. Some journey’s have been emotional and challenged my world view, challenged everything and left me breathless and confused, grieving and lost.
Sometimes the journey has been simple and lovely, such as the little journey we made today around Toongabbie Creek on our daily walk with the dogs. Susan and Nebo ventured as far as the bridge. The old fellow decided he didn’t need to go far today. Nico, meanwhile, wanted to venture as far as possible, to explore the creek, the parks, bark at or greet other dogs and people along the way. This little journey isn’t so much a physical challenge but a source quiet and reflection in the wonder and beauty of the early morning world.
Sometimes the journey is emotionally or physically demanding. It stretches me by confronting me with my own limitations and powerlessness. The journey through my mother’s illness and death so many years ago, was extremely confronting and emotionally challenging. The resultant grief and sense of loss became its own journey to understand, recalibrate and recognise my own limitations and mortality. I also recognised that I cannot do this life alone.
‘Journey’ is a metaphor that is readily present in all cultures to describe the movement through life that engages us. Most cultures, religions and philosophies seem to speak in terms of a journey at some point. The great archetypal story is of the outward journey we all make, leaving home to take on the world and build our own sense of being. This metaphorical (and sometimes physical) journey is about the individuation of self, of experimenting and testing the world and working out who we are. It is necessarily self-centred and ego-driven. It revolves around ambition, striving, testing and pushing boundaries. It is the life of the adolescent who is naturally self-absorbed as they try to define and express their emerging identity. Sometimes this is a wild journey (‘sowing wild oats’) that pushes everything as far as possible. There may be rebellion and anger. vulnerability and naivete in the push and pull of home versus independence. This is the story of the Garden of Eden and the journey outward into the world away from the fantastical world of childhood. It is about rebellion and pushing boundaries and rules and the movement into personhood – Adam and Eve gained names and individual identity at this point in the story. They enter a world that is harsh and filled with toil and struggle, along with the joy of relationships and life lived. This is also the beginning of the journey that will eventually bring them home into a place of peaceful acceptance, of relational equanimity when engaged with integrity!
The outward journey we make into life is one that builds the container of our being. It is the building up of who we are and is formed in the dreams, hopes and adolescent longing of ego, ambition and the seductions of the world in which live. We are tempted with fame, fortune, power and the accumulation of ‘stuff’. We become driven to ‘be someone’ even though we have no clear idea of who we are. The compulsions and addictions we acquire as we struggle through this journey drive us onward until we fall into vulnerability and humility.
When we are confronted by a great suffering and have to live through it we recognise our own powerlessness and inability to ‘save ourselves’. Sometimes a great sense of awe that brings us to our knees and reveals the smallness of who we are in this vast universe – the world does not actually revolve around ‘me’. It may be a great love that draws us into a vulnerable, humble place before which we recognise that we are not the centre of everything. These kinds of experiences, when engaged with and allowed to form us and change us, squash down the ego into a healthier place where it doesn’t dominate everything.
We then begin the 2nd journey of life, which is about filling the container of our lives, the one built up in the 1st journey. We learn wisdom, community, generosity and love. We begin to understand that we are part of the webs of life on this vulnerable planet. We are no better or worse, no greater or less than other people – we are unique, and everyone has their place. We are all in this together and must share the resources and learning we have acquired along the way for the good of all. This is some challenging journey and one that not everyone makes! The best leaders the world has known were making this journey in life whilst the worst, ego-centric leaders are still negotiating the 1st journey and do not understand what life is about – not yet.
This week’s story comes from Luke 15:11-32, which is the story often known as The Prodigal Son. It is a story of the 2 journeys. The young son confronts the world of home and wants out. He wants to push the boundaries, experience life and test the seductive promises of the world beyond home. His father obliges and he leaves on his adventure. All seems good until he realises it actually isn’t. Money gone, friends moved on and desperate he falls into crisis and suffering. It is somewhere in this fallen state of pain and crisis that he realises he can’t do it and home looks pretty good. His father’s house cares for all who are there. He returns home. He could not do that until he came to the humble realisation that he was powerless to change anything about his life. He could not do it alone and needed home!
The part of the story that confounds us and turns expectations upside down is when he gets close to home and we are told his father had looked out every day and when he saw his son he ran and grasped him with tears in his eyes and love in his heart. The son tried to confess, apologise… but the father pushes it aside saying, ‘You are my son, you’ve always been my son. You were lost but now your found; dead but now alive.’ This is grace! It is undeserved, unmerited love that recognises the boy has endured the 1st journey and is now ready to come home to where he belongs as the unique individual he can be. He doesn’t need to be ‘punished’ just accepted and loved! He has been to ‘hell’ and back home.
His older brother never left home and has never known the deep pain. He has lived in safety and judges his brother severely! He refuses his father’s grace and wants retribution towards his brother. He cannot accept grace. He cannot see that the deeper a person falls and suffers, the deeper their need for grace, love and acceptance. This is a story of God’s grace and love that is there for everyone, free and lavishly bestowed on all who understand their need and humbly open themselves to receive it!
The older son becomes real in our own experience when there is judgement of others who need grace and love – asylum seekers, our Indigenous brothers and sisters, those who struggle with poverty, both here and overseas… – people who have great needs, physical, emotional/psychological and spiritual, which at some point is most of us. The older son is those who from a sense of entitlement judge other people who are in another place without walking with them to understand their life. The older son refuses to come to the celebration and wants to deny grace to others. Such grace and love is confounding and antithetical to the priorities of our world, where vengeance and retribution dominate our responses to life’s challenges. Forgiveness and grace, though, are the way of healing and peace for all.