Where’s Mama?

“So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found! And they began to celebrate.’”

Luke 15:20-23

As I was mulling over the text of this classic parable, a parable that is as familiar to us as the slippers we pad around the house in, I found myself preoccupied with a question that had never occurred to me before.

The question is this—Where’s Mama?!

Have you ever wondered why it is that the mother of the wayward son never makes an appearance in this story—why she is never seen or heard from?—why she does not figure in the welcome of her boy or the celebration afterwards?

What got me puzzling over this was coming across a commentary on this parable by a New Testament scholar entitled, “I Remember Mama”, which seemed to suggest that when the prodigal was bereft and desolate in a far country, memories of his mother must have played a role in his decision to return home.

This intrigued me—what could possibly be assumed or said about a mother who is not even mentioned in the text?

But then it turns out that in the commentary itself there is not a single reference to Mama—aside from the title, she is conspicuously absent.

Where is Mama?

And then I remembered that Rembrandt, inspired by this parable, had done pictures of the father embracing his long-lost son and these pictures included other figures in the background looking on.

Maybe Mama’s face could be found among these witnesses—but no, the only persons shown in the background are the elder brother and servants—once again, Mama is absent.

And yet, it seems to me, Mama’s absence in the parable speaks volumes—her absence, her silence, her invisibility, create a vacuum that calls out to us, that cries out to be filled with our imagining.

The mom’s absence in the story challenges and provokes us to fill in the blank, to summon her out of the shadows, to envision a back story that recognizes and includes her as an indispensable participant in the wondrous reconciliation that occurs at the end of the parable.

So, in the next few moments, let us imagine Mama.

When the two boys are little, I imagine Mama as a serious Jewish mother who adores her kids to a fault, constantly brags on them, treats their most minor achievement as a world-class feat, and frets over their every mishap and disappointment.

But, as the years go by, I imagine Mama, more than anything, as one who endures.

Of course, to start with, I imagine her enduring the terrible, life-threatening hazards of giving birth to two sons.

And then I imagine her enduring all the demands, anxieties, and frustrations of raising two boys—the throw ups, the fevers, the skinned knees, the tantrums, the sibling warfare that sometimes turns bloody, the turbulent, stormy moods of adolescence.

I imagine her enduring the older son becoming overly compliant and submissive to his father’s wishes.

I imagine her enduring the younger son becoming increasingly impulsive and reckless.

Mama carries on, but she worries a lot about her boys.

And when this younger boy, now a young man, talks his dad into giving him his inheritance early and is poised to march out the door with nothing more specific in mind than seeing the world and sampling its pleasures and excitements, I imagine Mama tearfully imploring him to reconsider, pleading with him to stay around, pursue some of the opportunities at the home place, find a nice girl, and settle down.

Nevertheless, despite her anguished protests, he leaves—and I imagine Mama inconsolably distraught, wringing her hands, secluding herself for several days in a darkened room., but still harboring a slim hope that he will suddenly show up on the doorstep hungry and tired, eager to reclaim his own bed and eat his fill of Mama’s home cooking.

But when weeks and months pass and there’s been no word from this vagabond boy, I imagine Mama enduring a perpetual state of wondering, worrying, and praying, still hoping against hope she might see him coming down the road, and not for a moment writing him off, not for a moment regarding him as dead and gone.

And I imagine that eventually, this adventurous, foolish son of hers, bogged down in deprivation and misery in some distant hell-hole of a place, remembers Mama.

I imagine that in his hunger, loneliness, and desperation, he remembers all that Mama has endured on his behalf down through the years, all the comfort and solace she lavished on him, all the anguish he has caused her, and that this is part of what propels him home, whatever his other motives might be.

And thus I imagine Mama’s endurance helping to prepare the way for her son’s tumultuous homecoming.

And I imagine Mama as an exemplar of faith.

Because to endure in one’s costly investment in someone when that effort seems to be undercut and overwhelmed by insurmountable difficulties is an impossible proposition in human terms—if a project isn’t paying off, even if it involves a family member, shouldn’t we just cut our losses and move on?—but perhaps what we lack, faith can supply—perhaps it is just this kind of impossible that faith can make possible.

To endure on behalf of others for the long haul, to persist day by day in the provision of care when the results seem uncertain, negligible or cancelled out by circumstances beyond one’s control, is to trust that there is a creative power of grace in our midst that can ultimately convert our fallible human efforts into something durable and redemptive.

To endure on behalf of others when the benefits are scarcely visible is to trust that our efforts will ultimately have some kind of redemptive effect, even if it will be long delayed, even if it’s beyond our lifetime.

Perhaps imagining Mama can help us reflect on all those unrecognized, uncelebrated persons past and present whose endurance on behalf of others has had a redemptive effect.

Perhaps every one of us has known such persons—perhaps every one of us is benefiting at this very moment from those who endured on our behalf. Amen.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
4 Lent
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
March 14, 2010

Life on the Other Side of Trouble

“O Lord my God, I cried out to you,
and you restored my health.
You brought me up. O lord, from the dead;
you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.
While I felt secure, I said,
‘I shall never be disturbed.
You, Lord, with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains.’
Then you hid your face,
and I was filled with fear.
I cried to you, O Lord,
I pleaded with the Lord, saying,
‘What profit is there in my blood if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me;
O Lord, be my helper.’
You have turned my wailing into dancing;
you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.
Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.”

Psalm 30:2-3, 7-13

The remarkable thing about Psalm 30 is that this psalm, in just a few verses, traverses the different seasons of faith.

Verse 7 refers to the season of blessed order and stability—“While I felt secure, I said, ‘I shall never be disturbed. You Lord with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains.’”

This is the time when we are settled, comfortable, at ease—when we are basking in security and contentment—when things are humming along—when things seem to fall into place—when life is abundant, gratifying, overflowing—when we know ourselves to be richly blessed—when God seems to be the founder and guarantor of our flourishing.

But verse 8 reflects a drastic reversal of fortune—“Then you hid your face, and I was filled with fear”—perhaps panic would be a better translation.

Inevitably our state of easeful order, equilibrium, and tranquility is disrupted by some kind of trouble that arrives with enough force to unsettle and disturb us, to arouse in us considerable alarm and anxiety—we suddenly feel in our bones the fragility of our security and, indeed, of our very existence.

Sometimes this trouble is severe enough to throw us into the kind of panic and desperation the psalmist knows about when he speaks of all night weeping, and the terror of going down to “the Pit.”

For the psalmist, the Pit is the black hole of desolation, hopelessness, extinction—to go down to the Pit is to be swallowed up in the darkness of the void.

The Psalmist doesn’t tell us what the trouble is—but we know what our trouble is—an accident, illness, job loss, divorce, not enough income to keep the wolves from the door, family strife, death of a companion—or maybe just inexplicable dread.

We Episcopalians are not accustomed to venting our anguish in such visceral, naked outcries of distress as we find in the psalms.

Most of us from our earliest years become adept at camouflaging our distress—most of us never learned an adequate vocabulary for lamenting the unspeakable trouble that at some time or other is visited upon us.

We might think of the psalmist as an inspired blues singer like Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday—the psalmist furnishes polite, civilized, moderate people like us with a language of lamentation we have been sorely missing—the psalmist’s voice can become our voice.

But, of course, the psalmist is also an incomparable celebrant of new life on the other side of trouble—a celebrant of resurrection.

And just as the psalmist exceeds us in articulating grief, so she surpasses us in the unfettered exuberance of praise and gratitude.

“O Lord my God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health.
You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave….
Weeping may spend the night but joy comes in the morning….
You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack cloth and clothed me with joy.
Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you for ever.”

Something amazing happens to the psalmist on the way to the Pit—just as he seems to be tumbling into the depths of the netherworld of gloom and misery, just when all seems lost, just when he seems to be a dead duck, he is suddenly lifted up, healed, restored, clothed with joy—he can’t say how it happened, only that it happened.

And so the psalmist, sounding more pentecostal than Episcopalian, lets loose with an ecstatic anthem of thanksgiving—for it is always an astonishing thing to be resurrected from the deathly grip of doom and gloom, to discover newness of life on the other side of big trouble.

For those of us raised on huge doses of self-sufficiency and self-reliance, the psalmist’s language of praise may seem strange to our ears.

For the psalmist consistently identifies God as the superabundant, endlessly resourceful power who, when we are dead-ended and absolutely stymied, surprises us with new, life-giving possibilities utterly beyond our reckoning. .

For the psalmist, God is the always startling provider of new life on the other side of trouble.

If we are sufficiently attentive, we can hear many stories in this parish community and beyond about discovering the gift of new life on the other side of trouble.

I’m thinking of the young father I read about who said, “When my wife gave birth to a son with Down syndrome, I thought it was my damnation, but it turned out to be my salvation.”

I’m thinking of Dominique Browning who was the editor of House & Garden for 12 years—and who on a certain Monday morning in 2007 was abruptly notified that both the magazine and her job no longer existed.

For a Type A personality for whom her job was the beginning and end of her universe, this was a crushing blow.

For years her worst nightmare was unemployment, a fear she had kept at bay by being too busy to think—but now it had happened—the superstructure that had fueled her energy and motivation had collapsed.

Her job was not only her source of income—it was the measure of her worth—and now a horrific sense of worthlessness and failure, not to mention panic about her future, almost completely immobilized her.

For months just getting out of bed required a supreme effort.

Then one day she pulled off the shelf an old King James Version of the Bible she’d been given in high school—and over the next weeks she immersed herself in this book she had never read before.

She said, “I turned most frequently to the Psalms, whose gorgeous, intricate, sensual prayers blanketed me in wonder. There I found my anthem for that year, the most eloquent expression of grief I ever read: ‘I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.’”

Then she found an old volume of sheet music for J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations—though hardly an accomplished pianist, she began to falteringly pick her way through the first passages and she said, “Unexpectedly, I felt a peace suffuse my bones as I lost myself in Bach’s lines—Bach has become a nightly visitor. I am obsessed with him, his musical tricks, jokes, and puns; his charismatic energy and passion; his resilience through tragedy; his rigorous discipline; his bedrock belief in a force greater than anything human.”

She goes on to say, “Slowly, slowly, the months go by, each one a variation transposing loss, loneliness, and anger to gratitude and hope….I find room in my life again for love of the world, let the quiet of solitary moments steal over me, give myself over to joy. What a surprise! That I can cook a meal for my children, or take a long walk on the beach, or watch an osprey wheel through the sky, or set down a page of thoughts—these are moments of grace. Old Testament loving kindness, the stuff of everyday life….when I am at the keyboard, I connect with something I may have once encountered as a teenager and then lost in the frantic skim through adulthood—the desire to nourish my soul….every once in a while, I accomplish a passage adroitly. Fingers dance over keys….I enjoy myself. And I am happy for small-boned miracles.”

And so it is that a young father, an unemployed former editor, and, yes, many of us have discovered, and perhaps rediscovered again and again, the gift and grace of burgeoning new life on the other side of trouble.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
3 Easter
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio