grumpy traveler, prodigals, and survival

I woke up grumpy this morning.  I hadn't slept particularly well.  Somehow,  I'd mixed up my flight schedule last night and missed my plane.  I was fortunate enough to get a later flight, which meant a late night arrival, closed restaurants, and Lean Cuisine at the hotel and an HGTV home renovation show before bed.  I made my way to the hotel restaurant for breakfast this morning, where I admit I was not feeling particularly grateful.  Then a smiling boy walked up to me and introduced himself as I absently scooped eggs onto my plate.  He asked me what my name was and shook my hand and looked me in the eye.  We talked about his upcoming fourth birthday party and he told me that he'd invited a lot of people.  I was grateful that we met.  It sent me in a different direction than I might have otherwise been headed today.  Some thoughts on this warm Tampa morning.

I have been excitedly reading through Henri Nouwen's book on Rembrandt's painting, The Prodigal Son.  Many of the gospel parables offer enigmatic complexity, and the Prodigal is no exception.  Nouwen writes of his own changing roles as the varying characters in the painting over the years (wayward son, the judgmental Boy Scout brother, and even the father with hands of both masculine and feminine balance).  Nouwen also does a remarkable job of describing the ambiguous return of the prodigal, and his desire to return as a hired hand rather than asking to again assume the role of a full son, with all the obligations that come with it:

"The prodigal's return is full of ambiguities.  He is traveling in the right direction, but what confusion!  ... He knows that he is still the son, but tells himself that he has lost the dignity to be called "son," and he prepares himself to accept the status of a "hired man" so that he will at least survive.  There is repentance ... It is a self serving repentance that offers the possibility of survival."

I have been thinking about this is conjunction with my recent reading of pieces of Thomas Merton's last work before his death in 1968, Contemplative Prayer, and his observation that:

" is true that religion on a superficial level, religion that is untrue to itself and to God, easily comes to serve as the "opium of the people."  And this takes place whenever religion and prayer invoke the name of God for reasons and ends that have nothing to do with him.  When religion becomes a mere artificial façade to justify a social or economic system - when religion hands over its rites and language completely to the political propagandist, and when prayer becomes the vehicle for a purely secular ideological program - then religion does tend to become an opiate.  It deadens the spirit enough to permit the substitution of a superficial fiction and mythology for this truth of life."

There is this curious relationship between the prodigal's resignation to the return of the father in the interest of survival and a more deep repentance.  I give up not because you are the Father, but because I need physical provision.  A coming to the Father in resignation and humility (not necessarily organic humility).  Certainly, this is the power of many conversion experiences.  I'd dare say even my own.  And perhaps sanctification at that point is one which hopefully departs from the merely pragmatic return to the Father to one of releasing our inordinate attachments to this world.  Merton observes the phenomenon of survival on the wider scale, the danger of religion being shrewdly manipulated for the means of the politician or the businessman.  Can we be sons and daughters who seek not only a safe station assured by the return to the Father.  And can we avoid the sirens of socio-politically expedient faith.  Can we as Bonhoeffer asked, answer the call to come and die.  


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