…let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.
Don’t tell. Don’t share this with anyone. Keep that to yourself. Nobody needs to know. Secrets tangled with silence to create shame. For years I believed that I had done horrible things, that I was a bad person, a disappointment to all. I had more secrets than I could keep, and they were consuming me. Even after the crisis of my adolescent years had passed, the advice I received was to keep quiet and demonstrate that I was well and looking forward to the fullness of life.
Some people who told me to keep quiet only wanted to protect themselves. Others wanted to protect me. I couldn’t tell the difference. I thought I was an embarrassment to everyone who knew me because I had these things festering inside of me. I thought no one would want me around if they really knew who I was, what had been done to me, and what I had done. And, of course, there was no way I would have been ordained if I had been honest about the struggles that followed me into young adulthood.
Every time I read the “Prodigal Son” parable I am reminded of the longing I felt in those years when I was held hostage by shame. I had empathy for both sons in the story. I identified with the younger son who went off and wasted his gifts on things that left him alone, hungry, and longing for home. I also had an affinity for the older son who always did the right and expected thing and resented everyone around him for not doing their part. Of course, the bulk of his resentment fell on his younger brother and father upon the wayward one’s return. Why was he not celebrated with such lavish attention when he never did anything but serve his father?
These two warred within me. I continued to hold against myself all the self-destructive things I had done. Even though the ongoing suicidality and eating disorder were not readily apparent to anyone else, I hated myself for not wanting to live and for wanting to starve myself. I hated myself for all that I could not speak out loud. I, like the younger son, had squandered my gifts and remained unsatisfied and hungry and alone. Yet, I kept this hidden under the façade like the older son. I, too, sought to do all that was right and expected while secretly building resentment. Who was going to fill my life with extravagant welcome?
Now, many years later, I see how I missed the heart of this parable. It wasn’t the sibling rivalry. It wasn’t about wasted gifts and self-destruction anymore than it was about harboring resentments while doing the right things. I’d always overlooked the father in the story. He was far more prodigal with his love than the youngest son was in wasting his inheritance. It was the father who waited patiently for his sons to figure themselves out. It was the father who remained, ready to open his arms with love and forgiveness no matter how long it took.
In those years that I spent ashamed and feeling unworthy and unlovable, I missed the message of prodigal love. God already knew the worst of what had happened to me and the worst of what I had done. No silence was big enough or heavy enough to keep God out of my life. Shame was not a barrier, either. All the years I spent harboring pain and hiding the truth, God waited patiently for me to accept the gifts of grace, forgiveness, and healing God offers all of us. There was a party being held in my honor and I was the last one to show up and see it for what it was.
Only when I realized that I was more than the secrets I kept was I able to let go of the shame and break the silence I had acquired in childhood. With suicide making headlines again, it’s a good time to remember that God is a prodigal God, endlessly, lavishly pouring out love and grace, forgiveness and healing. Who do you know that needs to be invited to the party held in their honor? Who do you know who carries shame and guilt who needs a word of hope and promise? Who do you know who hides in a silence that love could shatter?
Isn’t it time that we all practices prodigal love of God, of ourselves, of our neighbors, of creation? Imagine liberating the Body of Christ from these days of scarcity, fear, and shame to a future of abundance, peace, and love for all…
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RCL – Year C – Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 31, 2019
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32