Jesus’ story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 has always been a powerful one for me. I know at least one person whose life turned around from a path of self-destruction after he heard a sermon on this scripture text.
On Saturday morning of Writer’s Corner at West End United Methodist Church, the conference participants were beginning to feel a little more at home with one another, even though several of us came to the conference not knowing anyone else there. Our workshop leader, author Joy Jordan-Lake, had led us through a couple of writing exercises.
Then she asked us to listen to three stories from the Gospel of Luke and decide which one we related to the most: Jesus’ parable of the shepherd searching for a lost sheep, his parable of the woman who lost a coin and swept her house looking for it, and the parable of the prodigal son (or as some call this story, the parable of the loving father), who asked his father for his inheritance, left home and squandered the inheritance, but finally came to his senses and decided to return home, asking his father if he would take him on as a hired hand (you’ll have to read Luke 15 for the father’s response, if you’re unfamiliar with this story).
Here was our next assignment after hearing the scripture read: Imagine yourself in the story. What character are you? Who are the other characters? (They can be different genders from the one in the story.) What sounds do you hear, what smells or other senses do you experience? What other details would you add to the story?
I chose the parable of the prodigal son because I could relate to it from some experiences in our family life. I started out writing, “There was a mother who had a son and a daughter.” Then I thought, “No, this story involved our whole family, so I crossed out ‘a mother’ and put ‘two parents.’ ” I went on to write part of a story that happened in our family a few years ago as our son, then in high school, experimented with drugs and got expelled from school. I was planning to parallel our daughter’s experience with that of the elder brother in the prodigal son story, who stays at home and doesn’t cause any trouble. But time for this writing exercise expired, and Joy asked us to share our stories with the people sitting at our table. It turns out that we had just the right number of people at our table to share intimately–three.
One woman had already shared some very personal responses in a previous exercise, in response to the writing prompts “My mother never . . .” and “My father never. . .” She had trouble with this exercise, I suspect because she had already talked about intimate matters.
So I began reading my story and, in the sharing, burst into tears. This is not a common occurrence for me, and I usually feel quite embarrassed to show emotions in public. However, in this setting, it felt just fine, probably because the other woman had set the stage by sharing those private memories from her childhood.
The next thing that happened gave me goose bumps. The woman next to me, a retired physician who had already told me some of her life story (and it involved much difficulty), started telling her story. She had not written it down because she just sat there thinking about it and the prodigal son story, and all she could do was cry.
She talked about her younger brother, a brilliant high school student who had gone to Dartmouth and encountered the academic challenges and reality of being surrounded by other students just as bright as he–and then suffered a psychotic breakdown.
Over the next several years, as his sister graduated from an Ivy League school and went on to medical school, the young man tried to put his life back together. He worked at various jobs and attended college, but he was unclear about what path to pursue. He became discouraged at how long it was taking him to complete college.
In the meantime, his parents divorced. He spiraled into depression and went to each of his family members for help. His father, who had remarried, told him he he was not welcome at his home. His mother was much more accepting, reaching out to him and trying to help him. But nothing seemed to work.
Finally, in desperation, he went to his sister, who was by then married and had a three-year-old son, as well as a demanding full-time job as a physician. She allowed him to come stay with her family for a week, but told him that he would need to leave after that. After he’d been with them for a week, she and her husband took him to the YMCA (which at that time provided housing for people in need) and left him there.
As our new friend was telling her story, she reflected on how her father had been unlike the father in the prodigal son story, and how her mother had acted like the loving father. She then wept as she said, “That was the last time I saw my brother. Not long after that he committed suicide. I felt so awful, remembering my last contact with him and how I really hadn’t helped him at all.”
By this time everyone at our table was crying, including Joy Jordan-Lake, the guest author. I don’t remember what we said–we tried to come up with consoling thoughts, but there’s just not much you can say in the face of such sadness, even 30 years after the fact.
The woman who had shared her painful story seemed relieved.
I thought about what sacred moments we had just experienced. To hear another person’s story is indeed an honor–that person has entrusted us with part of himself or herself. It’s also a catharsis for the storyteller. I was reminded of a quotation I had read in Trevor Hudson’s book A Mile in My Shoes: Cultivating Compassion: “Everyone sits beside his or her own pool of tears.”
I pray that I will always pay attention to other people’s stories and not be so consumed with reflecting on my own story that I miss such holy moments.