This past weekend, I went on a retreat with some youth from my church. I had an opportunity for an interesting learning experience that I would like to share, but first I must give you some background information.
We were in a worship service that was 'a little different' from your traditional styles of worship. I thought that it was a good concept for worship, sometimes we need different. There were some logistical problems when you are dealing with around one hundred 6th - 8th grade youth, but overall the message was really interesting.
The story was the story of the prodigal son (found in Luke 15:11-32 if you would like to read it) which starts out with a man having two sons, a younger son and an older son. The younger son comes to dad and basically tells him, you are as good as dead to me. I don't want to follow your rules anymore. You make me misreable. (Total parental rejection). So, give me the assets I would receive upon your death in cold hard cash and I'll just be on my way. So the father did, and the son went off into the world and squandered all his money doing whatever felt good at the time. After he spent all his money, there was a 'downturn' in the economy and he had to take a job in the corporate pig farms, in fact he was a 'sty tech' in which he had to feed and clean out the sty as best as you can clean out a sty. (Now at this point I am thinking that most of these kids do not really know how pigs live, so they cannot relate to the nasty mess that is a pig sty, except that when their mom calls their room a pig sty. It was, however, pointed out that they wallowed in the mud.)
At this point in the service, the kids were sent to a station that had a mud mixture that they were to put their hands in and write on a big sheet of paper a time in their life when they "wallowed in mud." Maybe a time when they were doing things they knew were wrong, or a time when they felt far away from God, for example. They were told to go back to their seats with muddy hands, having to live for a bit with the mess they made. They were then given some information about how nasty pigs are; they wallow in their own feces even eating it, so it wasn't just mud (at which time there were several shrieks from kids with particularly dirty hands! They were assured that they had played in mud only, no feces added!).
Then the story continued with the son being hungry and seriously thinking about wrestling one of the pigs for dinner, then the story says, "but then he came to himself." Sometimes we have to get in such a low spot to be able to see or reflect clearly on how good of a life we really had when we thought we were so misreable. He recognized that his father treated his hired hands better than he was being treated at the time (and I am sure the thought which wasn't written was "and I was treated like royalty!). So he piled up all his pride into a great big ball and threw it away. He headed back home, the entire time working up what he would say to his father, I am sure trying to get it just right. He would have had to throw his pride away to get his contriteness just right.
But then the story shifts from this young man to his father. Apparently, dad every day watched for his son to return, and one day his diligence paid off. I am sure, he probably rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn't just dreaming, but then he didn't just sit there waiting for the penitent child's return thinking about how he could punish him for his rebellion. No, he took off running, and he threw his pride away too, because it was undignified for him to run like he did. He ran down the road, threw his arms around his son, and welcomed him home. The son, began his well rehearsed speech, but the father wouldn't hear it. He called his servants and told them to prepare a party for his son. The son who told his dad he no longer wanted to be his son was welcomed home as a son. He was given clothes befitting an heir, not a slave and a ring was placed on his finger signfying his status.
At this point in the service God's justifying grace was discussed. The youth said a prayer of confession, and then the youth participated in a 'hand washing' service. All the mud they had gotten themselves into was washed off, as they were told, "no matter the mud of life we get ourselves into there is nothing God's grace cannot forgive." It was a poignant time in the service. Then they were given a pipe cleaner and told to make a ring out of it and sent back to their seats.
They were then told the rest of the story. The older brother hearing of the father's immediate forgiveness wasn't so pleased with his brother's return. He expressed this displeasure to his father, but his father explains to him that the brother that was dead is now alive, and they must celebrate this. This is how the story ends. We do not hear how the brother responds indicating that it is left up to us to finish the story.
At this point in the service it was pointed out that often we feel like the older brother, like we do not do anything wrong, that we didn't get into the muddy mess, yet we too need to have the cleansing power of God's grace because the mud we have is in our hearts. The youth said a prayer, and as part of the communion liturgy, they were to give their ring to the person next to them indicating their forgiveness as the older son of those around them. Then we went ahead and had communion, receiving God's grace for our lives to enable us to live our lives as those who have been cleaned by the grace of God and who want to live in God's grace.
I made a few observations as I participated and helped with this service:
1. I knew I had a job in the service later, so I did not participate in the 'mud' part. At this point I identified with the older son who did not choose such a life.
2. I helped with the hand washing, and although my hands (and clothes) were clean up to this point, once I started helping share God's grace through washing their dirty hands, I became really messy! I noted that when we help those who have made a mess out their own lives, we get a little messy ourselves in the process. However, I had the water (symbolic of God's grace) immediately at my disposal.
3. Some of the youth, after getting their hands washed, went back to play in the mud. They were not supposed to do this, so I can only assume they thought they were being funny or some other thought known only to the mischievous. But it struck me that often those who seek out the grace of God also go back to their messy living. If we wrote their story in the prodigal son's it would be like after having returned home and been given 'heir status' again, once you ate and drank your fill at the party you went back to the pig sty for the evening. What a revelation that was for me, for we would consider that insane. But by many of our actions, inactions or other choices we do that very thing. We have returned to God's grace, received the ultimate forgiveness and lavish love only to reject it again.
What observations do you make when you hear or read the story of the prodigal? Where do you see yourself in the story? Are you the younger son living in the mess of your own making, longing for the love found back home? Or are you the older son who holds on to the hurt rather than practicing the freeing forigiveness that you have received, making a mess of your heart if not your life? Or are you the father, longing for your own prodigal to make a good choice so you are given the opportunity to express unconditional love that even then may or may not bring about change? Just something to think about this week.