He's a poet, oh, he's a picker, he's a prophet, he's a pusher
He's a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he's stoned
He's a walkin' contradiction, partly truth, partly fiction
Takin' ev'ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home
— Kris Kristofferson, The Pilgrim: Chapter 33
We are on a journey in this life.
Each and every one of us is on a journey. It begins in the nourishing warmth of our mother’s womb. It ends in the grave. And we go oh so many places in between.
One Sunday morning in Asuncion I was on my morning walk and came upon, of all things, a Baptist church. I found it after I had taken a wrong turn on my walk. I wasn’t sure where I was. There is a word for that.
I grew up as a Southern Baptist, and as a Southern Baptist I heard the word used frequently in a spiritual sense but I don’t hear it used that way much anymore.
It would come at the end of the sermon. One could hear it was coming by the rhythm, the cadence. The Preacher would ask a question, “Are you lost?”
In hushed conversations in front of the children who they thought were too young to understand, women talking about one of their husbands would say, “He’s lost.”
And from context I knew what they meant, or at least I thought I did. I was a kid. And I don’t mean that as a put down. We know that children, without having had the time to cultivate the skill of self-deception, can innocently know more than those who are very learned. The learned sometimes use their learning to live a lie, to deceive themselves.
That Sunday morning in Asuncion, I gingerly opened the church’s front door and heard the music to “Standing on the Promises” come through. I knew where I was.
The language of being lost in the religious sense is taken, of course, from the Gospels where Jesus tells the story of the shepherd's lost sheep and the woman’s lost piece of silver. Something has been in its proper place, the place where it belongs, but is then not there anymore. When it is in its proper place again, the correct response is joy.
The lost sheep and the lost piece of silver are not people, so the implicit question arises of what it means for a person to be lost.
That day in Asuncion, the preacher’s sermon was on the Parable of the Prodigal son, which answers this question.
The prodigal son goes off the path and becomes lost. He spends everything he has on transient pleasures. He hits rock bottom, eating the same food as the pigs, and comes to the rational decision that even his father’s servants have it better than him. He goes home and is welcomed back by his father. We know about him getting his father’s ring and the killing of the fatted calf to celebrate his return.
He was lost, but now he’s found.
So often the exegeses of scripture stops there. The prodigal son fits a particular pattern, after all.
But Jesus did not stop the parable there. We also have the reaction of the stay at home son. He stays outside and refuses to come in and celebrate saying, “Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.”
To me, this raises the question of whether there might be other ways of being lost than the classic, well-recognized method of the prodigal son. Can we become so focused on following our own path that we become resentful when someone who has been out kicking over the traces comes back to the straight and narrow?
Is that old devil Jealousy involved? (The brother did pick up the harlot thing in particular.) Is this story picking up something of the same thing being talked about in Joseph and his brothers, of Jacob and Esau, and of Cain and Abel?
Our journey is to the grave. Our goal is to make it as good a journey as we can. Knowing how good we have it ourselves, and how much we owe of that to the grace of God is part of a good journey.
I slipped quietly out of the church before the sermon was over. I picked my way through the sleepin’ city sidewalks, and found the right path again.
— Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like” the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook.