By Heather Murray Elkins
“There was a man who had two sons ...”
—Luke 15:11 (RSV)
The drama began on a musty August afternoon. I was in the minister's chair, trying on the signs of authority I found in the desk. Emergency numbers, sermon starters, an outdated picture directory, fresh memo pads. As the summer relief pastor, I was eager to find an unmet need. But the phone remained silent, and the people polite.
I was not ready for the knock. I was not ready for the need that followed. He sat in an earnestly awkward posture and talked about his mother.
The older brother. The kid brother. A mother who loved one and used one. A thousand weekly errands had not changed the balance. A barroom fight had removed his sibling rival. But death had merely increased the younger brother's grip. He could not reach him. He could not beat him. His mother loved the dead more than the living, and that was killing him.
I listened, knowing that the script was too strong, too rehearsed for me to alter. In the silence he waited for a resolution, but I handed him a story instead. A story and a need. The drama of the prodigal son had been written before. He nodded when I named it. He knew his part. Would he help me preach it, simply act it out so that we could see the way the Word looked?
A typical elder brother He shelved his need, picked up mine, and promised to do what was un-done, “make believe in the sacred space.”
The door closed behind him and the first tryout was over Where would I find supporting players? The chance of another cast member coming to couch a confession was slim. I opened the church directory, hoping I was not guilty of charades.
It was an obvious choice. A tobacco farmer's family. Four husky boys. Weathered features on the father. Stained patience in the mother. They were framed in tradition, but the boy on the end wore his hair long, in a braid. I reached for the phone.
She knew who I was, the woman preacher. She knew the Bible story. She wanted to know which son I was asking for I read his name and waited.
“I don't know,” she said. “I don't know. He's been kicked out of the house so often, he's got scars on his . . . “
But the idea of her husband and son acting in church what they acted out at home caught her fancy. She would promise nothing, but invited me to Sunday dinner. I marked my calendar and wondered what would make a farmer risk “sowing the seed” in wooden pews.
A long table, filled with food, forks, and elbows. There was a lull and eyes shifted, waiting. Should I outline the sacred drama? Would describing the ancient tradition of mystery plays make a difference? Could I appeal to the power of parabolic action and the gospel? I do not remember what plea bargain I made. But some urgency of “enacting” the good news made the old farmer lay his fork down, stare at the youngest bone of his bone, and say, “I will, if he will.” The prodigal stared at his plate and nodded.
The cast was assembled and the script read, Luke 15:11-32. We met at the front of the church. The aisle and the small space on either side of the altar made up the setting. No props. No costumes. No learned lines. We did not discuss motivation. Simple movements and straight looks.
The first run-through was stiff with resistance. I read the verses and watched a full-grown man press halfway down the aisle before he halted at the sight of his father standing square in his way. The father moved reluctantly to his welcome. The son knelt, sullen, for a pardon. Then, some mystery began its work. The tempo changed. Each rehearsal added a vulnerability and a willingness to reach out. I began to look away when they held each other. Tears might have shattered their fragile “make believe.”
But what of the other, the elder, the one the script leaves unfinished? Was another ending hidden in their lives? We tried to talk it through. I could hear the resentment build in the tones of the “elder.” His mask was slipping. He was always left out, overlooked, on the sidelines of “the kid's party.”
The old farmer invited his “son” into the circle. He reached for his arm and anger flashed. The “elder son” pushed him away. Instant hostility. Two bristling strangers in the place of polite friends. I walked carefully between them.
“What would it take to make this son feel accepted?” I focused on the story. “What could the father do to bring this one home?”
“Nothing!” was the answer from the farmer. “He don't want nothing to do with me! No wonder the story stops just like it does.”
The younger man was now embarrassed. The farmer's voice trembled with old arguments.
“But does it end?” I asked. “Does it end? What would happen here if you died tonight? What would happen between your sons?”
The answer was long in coming, but dead certain when said.
“Kill each other, I reckon.”
We were deep into the real. He rubbed his hands like they hurt him.
“Is there anything you could do to change that? Anything at all?”
He swung from my question and stared at the two younger men. He frowned at his hands, then lifted his head to catch the eyes of his “elder son.” Slowly, so that the crack of arthritic joints sounded like branches breaking, the old man knelt, never taking his eyes away from his “son” and reached up his hands.
Stunned, silent, we stood. Then the face of the “elder” crumbled and he dropped to his knees, reaching for the one who reached for him. The younger son wavered, then knelt beside the two and wrapped his arms around them. I stared at the lines of scripture that wavered on the page.
When they rose, they were embarrassed. They cleared their throats, dug their hands in their pockets. The farmer spoke, gruffer because of the tears.
“Am I supposed to be God in this story?”
“Yes, yes you are.”
“Well, I can't do that again; God doesn't kneel.”
I closed the Bible slowly. I had no answer, I had never seen a grown man kneel. Could we think of a different ending?
They couldn't. Nor could I. We agreed to do it one more time, the Sunday morning service. No more rehearsals. They were anxious to get outside and reassume their roles. I could see the farmer shaking his head all the way to his pickup truck.
Sunday morning. The power of the Word emerged, garbed in commonplace grace. Tears watered the seed that was planted in the family pews. On the way out, the old farmer thumped my shoulder and said, “ I changed my mind about the kneeling.” I was eager to be absolved of overdirecting. “Why did you do it? What does it mean to you now?”
“Incarnation, I figure. That's what you preachers call the way that God kneels.”
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, filled with grace and truth . . .
“Blessed Be the Tie” by Heather Murray Elkins. Originally published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, January/February 1989), Vol. 4, No. 1. Copyright © 1989 The Upper Room.
The Upper Room has been a great resource that has transformed my life. It has been my go-to for years. I appreciate the opportunity to share this brief testimony with donors who make this ministry possible. Thanks so much for the gift of The Upper Room that so many of us veterans enjoy.”
The Upper Room Chaplains’ Ministry provides military, VA hospital, and prison chaplains copies of the daily devotional for their ministry. Give today to support the Chaplains’ Ministry.